Internal documents show Coke had profits in mind when it funded nutrition ‘science’

Kathlyn Stone is an associate editor with HealthNewsReview.org. She tweets as @KatKStone.

Two new academic articles published this month lend fresh insights into how Coca-Cola fueled its corporate interests through a front group and abused accepted transparency practices through dodgy disclosures of clinical trial conflicts of interest.

In a report published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health (JECH), Coca-Cola officials’ own words establish that their intent in funding the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN), a non-profit organization nominally devoted to promoting education and science, was to advance the corporate bottom line.

Internal Coca-Cola documents show that the company sought to portray GEBN as “an honest broker” in the obesity debate, and use it to-reframe the discussion on the causes of obesity. It would be a multi-faceted campaign that lobbied policymakers, funded researchers and clinical trials and “educated” health journalists and bloggers about the “energy balance” concept. GEBN’s interpretation of that concept has been widely criticized as shifting blame for the obesity crisis away from Coke’s signature sugary drinks.

Coca-Cola directly funded GEBN to the tune of $1.5 million, with millions more distributed to GEBN-affiliated academics to conduct research. It disbanded in 2015, but not before funding hundreds of suspect clinical trials.

In their own words

Thanks to a state Freedom of Information request made to the University of Colorado, a consumer and public health advocacy group called US Right to Know (USRTK) obtained internal documents describing Coca-Cola’s motivation for launching the GEBN. Gary Ruskin, USRTK’s co-director, together with public health and policy experts, have described the content of those documents in the JECH article and in other academic and scientific journals.

Key excerpts from the internal documents provided to HealthNewsReview.org by USRTK include a “Proposal for establishment of the Global Energy Balance Network” sent by Coca-Cola’s former Chief Science and Health Officer Rhona Applebaum. In the memo, Applebaum used war analogies to describe the corporation’s response to public health efforts to curb obesity.

There is a growing war between the public health community and private industry over how to reduce obesity. Sides are being chosen and battle lines are being drawn. The most extreme public health experts have gained traction with the media, with many policy makers, and with an increasing proportion of the general public.

Applebaum also likened GEBN to a “political campaign,” proposing that it “develop, deploy and evolve a powerful and multi-faceted strategy to counter radical organizations and their proponents.” Part of that multifaceted strategy was a program to “educate journalists” about the energy balance campaign — an initiative whose secret Coke sponsorship was originally uncovered by journalist Paul Thacker writing in the BMJ. Applebaum said the covert PR program was generating significant interest from the journalists who participated:

In 2012 the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center at the University of Colorado hosted a 3 day educational event for 20 of the leading health & wellness journalist in the country. The event was an enormous success and the journalists were enthusiastic about the information they received (about energy balance) and wrote a large number of stories about their experience.

And finally, the Coke executive referred to government regulations to tax or ban foods that are considered unhealthy as ‘extreme solutions’ to the obesity problem. She wrote that Coca-Cola’s intention was to “promote best practices that are effective in terms of both policy and profit (emphasis added).”

Corporations often deny self-serving motives when describing their funding of researchers and advocacy groups. These documents would appear to puncture any claim that Coca-Cola’s funding was intended to advance the public interest. Instead it shows that the company’s financial support was meant to drive a specific narrative that was consistent with company’s marketing goals.

Candor that’s ‘rarely seen’

In 2015 we wrote about HealthNewsReview.org contributor Yoni Freedhoff’, MD’s role in exposing the Coke front group. Freedhoff’s take on the latest revelations is that it’s business as usual for corporations.

Yoni Freedhoff, MD

“Though there’s nothing particularly surprising here — corporations actively working towards protecting their brands and sales is what corporations do — the candor described is rarely seen and it serves to provide basis to public health’s conjecture the vested interests of industry aren’t necessarily the best interests of public health,” he wrote in an email. “What’s also worth noting is that by trying to create and fund an organization designed to be a weapon against public health and an advocate for policy change, Coca-Cola simply sought to actively finance those researchers whose known pre-existing beliefs supported the narrative least damaging to Coca-Cola’s flagship brand of sugar water which in turn makes their claims that they were not influenced by Coca-Cola more credible.”

Does Freedhoff think GEBN-affiliated researchers actively shaped their messages to fit Coke’s narrative?

“It’s difficult to say,” Freedhoff says, “though it’s worth noting, that in one of their launch videos, one of GEBN’s founders recorded a video stating that, ‘there’s really no compelling evidence’ blaming sugary drinks and fast food as the cause of obesity while the camera panned over bottles of what appear to be Coca-Cola and Sprite (9 seconds into this video).”

In the video, Dr. Steven Blair, a University of South Carolina exercise science researcher and co-founder of GEBN, argues that “Most of the folks in the popular media and the scientific press is all [sic] ‘they’re eating too much, eating too much,’ blaming fast food, blaming sugary drinks and so on and there’s really virtually no compelling evidence that that in fact is the cause.”

If you listen carefully to Blair’s harangue, it’s pretty clear that he’s in sync with Coke’s re-framed message that fast foods and sugary drinks are not to blame for obesity — it’s the lack of exercise.

“It’s very difficult to watch that video and not imagine that Coca-Cola wasn’t in some way involved in scripting or shooting it,” Freedhoff says.

Lack of transparency — or subterfuge?

In a separate essay published in Public Health Nutrition journal, researchers analyzed how Coca-Cola disclosed – or failed to disclose– which of hundreds of clinical trials were funded by the company over a four-year period. Most of the published research is focused on physical activity and disregards the role of diet in obesity.

The analysis revealed that among 389 articles published in 169 different journals involving 907 Coke-funded researchers, that Coca-Cola acknowledged funding just 42 authors – less than 5% of those it actually funded.

The report concluded that because Coca-Cola has not declared a comprehensive list of its research activities and that several authors appear to have failed to declare receipt of Coke funding, “the full scale of Coca-Cola’s involvement is still not known.”

We may never know how deeply Coca-Cola influenced science in the name of profit, but these reports are further evidence that they used a well-worn playbook first made popular by Big Tobacco.

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