“It is not fair that Coca-Cola is signaled out as the #1 villain in the obesity world, but that is the situation and makes this your issue whether you like it or not. I want to help your company avoid the image of being a problem in peoples’ lives and back to being a company that brings important and fun things to them.” ─ James Hill, president Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN) email to Coke executive
With the Associated Press’ (AP’s) release last week of email correspondence between anti-obesity non-profit GEBN and Coca Cola executives, yet another round of media frenzy confronted the beverage giant. The controversy began when Yoni Freedhoff, MD an obesity expert at the University of Ottawa and a HealthNewsReview.org blog contributor, contacted the non-profit about funding and learned that Coca Cola contributed an initially undisclosed $1.5 million in 2014, to launch GEBN.
Based on Dr. Freedhoff’s initial tip, The NY Times investigated the GEBN-Coca Cola connection further, publishing an early August 2015 expose noting the following:
- The $1.5 million non-disclosed Coca-Cola start-up funding;
- The $4 million Coca-Cola project funding for GEBN’s founding members Dr. Steven N. Blair at the University of South Carolina and Gregory A Hand, dean of WVU’s School of Public Health;
- The gebn.org website, registered to Coca Cola in Atlanta, who also served as site administrator; and
- Coca Cola’s chief scientific officer, Rhonda Applebaum who was not made available for NY Times interview, had been active on GEBN’s behalf, on Twitter.
Applebaum, who laid out the corporation’s “Balance the Debate” strategy at a 2012 sugar industry conference presentation, noted that by engaging scientists, collaborating with them to develop the science and educating the public using evidence-based science, the industry would be able to “balance the debate to address the negative, advance the positive.” Coke accepted Applebaum’s retirement request after the emails, which documented her early CEBN management, became public last week.
Redirecting the association of sugary drink consumption and higher obesity and Type 2 diabetes, health experts contend that Coca-Cola is using CEBN to convince the public that physical activity can offset poor diet choices despite evidence that exercise has only minimal impact on weight, relative to calorie consumption. “The message is that obesity is not about the foods or beverages you’re consuming, it’s that you’re not balancing those foods with exercise,” Dr. Freedhoff of the University of Ottawa said.
While Coca-Cola executives provided executive-level responses to each throb of the frenzy, they have been far from expressing true contrition and more patronizing, if caring, plays taken from Applebaum’s “Balance the Debate” playbook. In an August 2015 Wall Street Journal op-ed, CEO Muhtar Kent addressed the concern that it puts stockholder interests ahead of its consumers: “By supporting research and nonprofit organizations, we seek to foster more science-based knowledge to better inform the debate about how best to deal with the obesity epidemic. We have never attempted to hide that. … However, in the future we will act with even more transparency as we refocus our investments and our efforts on well-being.” In addition to the launch of its “Our Commitment to Transparency” microsite that tracks research partnerships and funding activities, Kent indicated additional steps being considered might include creating an oversight committee as well as providing more communities with product options that include less sugar and fewer calories.
After the AP email excerpt publication last week, Sandy Douglas, president of Coke North America further addressed Coca-Cola’s ongoing efforts engaging public health community individuals. “We will continue to listen and learn. We will do so because we care,” Douglas said without describing timeline or project specifics. ”Stressing the company’s sincere desire to respond to public concerns over the CEBN funding controversy by noting “This is not a PR stunt for us,” further noted that Coke overconsumption is not the company’s goal. “If folks are saying the moderate consumption of our beverages is causing obesity, then we’re going to argue with that, because it’s not true,” he said. CEBN partner The University of Colorado School of Medicine and CEBN, has agreed to return $1 million of Coca-Cola’s grant because of misperceptions over the intent of the gift while Coca-Cola has indicated it will redirect those funds to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. Additionally, the corporation has ended annual sponsorships with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the American Academy for Pediatrics and the American Academy of Family Practice as a part of its funding review related to the CEBN controversy.
Do you think Coca-Cola has taken sufficient steps to restore a trusted place in the public health policy debate concerning obesity prevention? Join the conversation, in the comments below.
To read more about the Coke and the lack of Global Energy Balance Network funding disclosure
Kathlyn Stone writes about “Behind the scenes of the Times’ takedown of a Coke-funded “front group”
Andy Bellatti writes about “Marion Nestlé’s War on Soda”