The last couple of weeks have seen Coca-Cola in the news quite a bit. Coca-Cola has been having a tough time recently. This summer’s business news reported that revenues for the past year (2014) were down $2 billion from 2012 figures (although what’s a couple of billion when you’re still getting $46 billion?!)
It looks like the NY Times was the first newspaper to break the latest story. Anahad O’Connor was the journalist who reported that Coca-Cola was funding ‘scientists’ to reiterate the message to focus on exercise, and not calorie intake, in the war on obesity.
One of the tools in this collaboration is a new organisation called the Global Energy Balance Network, which has the mission “healthier living through the science of energy balance.” Their vision is a world in health energy balance. For this, read ‘a world in which Coca-Cola sales stop falling, but human beings get off their lazy backsides to burn off the calories in those cans of Coca-Cola’. How they explain the fact that calorie-free, diet drinks are associated with long term weight gain/waist increase, I know not.
When asked why the web site was registered to Coca-Cola, the President of the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN) replied that the group’s members didn’t know how to register a web site. That is probably the scientific equivalent of a child being caught with their hand in the cookie jar saying “it wasn’t me”! Even the GEBN site admits: “GEBN has received support from… blah, blah, blah… and an unrestricted gift from The Coca-Cola Company”. How kind of Coca-Cola to help these ‘scientists’ with their web site and to give them unrestricted funds at the same time.
The four key names listed on the GEBN website are James Hill; Steven Blair; Gregory Hand and John Peters. Shame on all of them for being industry whores (no – that’s not too strong a word), while trying to masquerade as scientists. The NY Times discovered that Coca-Cola donated $1.5 million in 2014 to launch the GEBN organisation. It can’t cost much to run a web site that Coke set up, so I wonder how much of the unrestricted funding is personally enjoyed by these four puppets? Anahad O’Connor further discovered that Coca-Cola provided approximately $4 million in funding to two of the GEBN founding members: Steven Blair and Gregory Hand. Coca-Cola clearly chooses its targets well, as Steven Blair’s work has formed much of the basis of US federal guidelines on physical activity.
Blair also got a ‘money-can’t-buy’ reward from Coca-Cola. He was invited to carry the Olympic torch at London 2012. (Am I the only one wondering if Blair is just too darn lazy, or has he been having too much of his sponsor’s produce?!)
Coca-Cola’s relationships with obesity and health organisations are widespread. They are a premier 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.
Coca-Cola is a sustaining member of the British Nutrition Foundation. The National Obesity Forum “was secretly paid £50,000 by Coca-Cola to promote low-calorie sweeteners”. The Association for the Study of Obesity has received Coca-Cola funding in the past.
The International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) describes itself as “a nonprofit, worldwide organization whose mission is to provide science that improves human health and well-being and safeguards the environment”. ILSI receives its funding from its industry members, governments, and foundations. The president of the ILSI is Rhona Applebaum representing The Coca-Cola company USA.
The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) recently published a report on carbohydrates and health. As this blog pointed out at the time, 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, except that the SACN 2008 annual report lists Professor MacDonald’s declared interests as Mars Europe and Coca-Cola Europe.
The Olympics have long been 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.
Even the World Health Organisation is not immune. They were ‘outed’ in 2012 as a recipient of Coca-Cola’s profit.
And finally, the UK government promotes Coca-Cola as role model healthy eating. A red can of cola is prominently featured on the Eatbadly plate.
James Hill, President of the Global Energy Balance Network hit back by saying: “Funding from the Coca-Cola Company will help build the infrastructure for an international consortium of scientists and representatives from a variety of sectors dedicated to battling obesity. The food, physical fitness, healthcare and other industries all must play a role in the solution.”
I disagree. We will never solve the obesity epidemic by thinking that fake food can help. Fake food is the problem, not the solution. We finally made progress in the tobacco war, not by working with the cigarette companies, but by doing everything we could to legislate against them.
I found the Coca-Cola response far more honest (although ‘feet’ and ‘shooting in them’ came to mind). Dr. Ed Hays, Chief Technical Officer of The Coca-Cola Company wrote a statement to set the record straight. The key words of interest in this statement are these ones: “Our business strategy is for more people to enjoy our products more often…”
At last, something with which I agree. Coca-Cola is in business to make money; to maximize returns to shareholders. It is not Coca-Cola’s job to resolve the obesity epidemic. Never has been; never will be. 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.