Coca-Cola, Obesity and Conflict
Coca-Cola launched an advert about obesity. You can see the advert here as part of a short clip on ABC news. The ABC news item had an interesting factoid in it: “Sugary sodas are the number one source of calories in the American diet.”
The Coca-cola advert has a female voice over – that kind of warm, trustworthy sort of female voice – and this is what she says: “Today, we’d like people to come together on something that concerns all of us – obesity… we now offer over 180 low and no-calorie choices…” (If you’re bored you could always play ‘spot the obese person in the Coca-Cola advert on obesity’!)
Back to the ABC report and they have a brief quote from “a sports nutritionist recommended by Coca-Cola” – Dr. Russell Pate, Director Children’s Physical Activity Research Group. Dr. Pate says “I believe strongly that we will have to increase the physical activity level of our population if we want to overcome the obesity epidemic.”
Surely Dr. Pate is bright enough to have worked out that it is better not to consume empty calories than it is to consume them and then try to work them off (good luck with a “Big Gulp” – 32 ounce monster, by the way). Surely also that Dr. Pate should have declared that the University of South Carolina Department of Exercise Science, where he works, acknowledged in their spring 2011 newsletter (opening paragraph) “Recent new funding includes a large grant from Coca-Cola“.
Steven Blair is one of Pate’s colleagues – also an active global speaker delivering the message – obesity is not about what we put in our mouths, it’s about being too darn lazy. Check out this picture of Steven Blair . He’s either too darn lazy or he’s been having too much of his sponsor’s medicine! Blair’s loyalty to Coca-Cola has not gone unrewarded – he was a torch bearer at the London Olympics “recognized by Coca-Cola North America, one of the Olympic sponsors, for his ‘leadership in helping others live positively.’”
On October 15th 2012 BBC Newsnight did a programme about lawyers in the USA who are taking on the ‘food’ and ‘drink’ industry in the same way that they did the tobacco industry. One of the lawyers is the same one who did so well against the cigarette firms, Don Barrett. The parallels between the tactics of the cigarette firms and the tactics of the soft drink manufacturers are strikingly similar. It does us no harm to make the following parallel. The main argument presented by Coca-Cola in their advert is that they have introduced over 180 low and no-calorie drinks to their range. Notice that they have taken nothing away – they have merely added lucrative new lines for more people to have more options for consuming their products. Can you imagine the reaction to Philip Morris running an advert to express their concern for heart disease with the positioning that it’s nothing to do with them because they’ve introduced lots of new low tar options?!
What Coca-Cola is doing really is that manipulative and disgraceful.
Coca-Cola’s relationships with obesity and health organisations are widespread. They are a sponsor of the American Dietetic Association. This is additionally worrying in America as dietitians have a legislated monopoly on giving dietary advice – check out their other sponsors in case you ever wondered where American official dietary advice comes from.
At the time of writing my book The Obesity Epidemic: What caused it? How can we stop it?, Coca-Cola were a sponsor of the UK Association for the Study of Obesity. Checking today on the web site Coca-Cola are not mentioned but Kellogg’s remain a “supporter”.
Coca-Cola is a sustaining member of the British Nutrition Foundation.
The International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) “is a nonprofit, worldwide organization whose mission is to improve public health and well-being by engaging academic, government and industry scientists in a neutral forum to advance scientific understanding in the areas related to nutrition, food safety, risk assessment, and the environment. ILSI receives its funding from its industry members, governments, and foundations.” The board of trustees lists 31 members, including representatives from: The Coca-Cola company and Coca-Cola Europe. (All correct at the time my book was published stating this).
One of the reasons I am so outspoken about the government’s ‘Eatwell Plate‘, which I call the eatbadly plate, is that it panders to the food companies. Kellogg’s must love the cornflakes packet – it was a Kellogg’s branded cornflakes packet on the first version of the plate (The Balance of Good Health). Coca-cola must love the red cola can, labelled cola, in the segment showing that 8% of your plate should be covered with junk. As I showed in my obesity epidemic book, that 8% of intake by weight becomes over 20% of intake by calories – perhaps an unintended consequence of this bad advice.
You know that the government’s ‘role model’ plate for healthy eating is anything but when it is featured on web sites for numerous food and drink companies. I stopped looking after the first six companies that came to mind all endorsed the plate: Sainsbury’s; Kellogg’s; PepsiCo; Coca-Cola; Nestle and Premier Foods.
The Olympics was a wonderful platform for Coca-Cola to promote their products to a global audience, as one of the official sponsors of the games. Coca-Cola’s association with sport and slim, athletic looking people, reinforces their desired message – drink Coca-cola, exercise and you won’t get fat. As Coca-Cola says on its website, they are “proud to be the longest continuous corporate partner of the Olympic Games” – an involvement that dates back to the Amsterdam games of 1928.
The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) has a carbohydrate working group looking at the evidence for carbohydrate intake on cardio-metabolic health. A highly worthy review and one that I would expect to raise serious concerns about modern intake of carbohydrates, especially refined ones, and modern illness – not just heart health, but diabetes, cancer, bowel disorders and all illness that has accompanied our recent diet and lifestyle. The chair of this working group is Professor Ian MacDonald, and his research interests include nutritional and metabolic aspects of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. An excellent candidate for chair you would think. However, the SACN 2008 annual report lists Professor MacDonald’s declared interests as Mars Europe and Coca-Cola Europe.
Even the World Health Organisation is not immune. They were ‘outed’ last year as a recipient of Coca-Cola’s profit.
The bottom line
Coca-Cola is part of the problem, not part of the solution. It is not Coca-Cola’s job to resolve the obesity epidemic. It is Coca-Cola’s job to maximise profit for shareholders. In the fight against the obesity epidemic, Coca-Cola is the enemy, not a private army. We know this. Coca-Cola knows this. Their response to this unfortunate truth is to try to keep their enemies closer still. We need to keep ours as far away from our citizens as possible.