Internal documents reveal that Coca-Cola created an ostensibly independent research centre as part of a conscious “war” against public-health advocates over obesity, researchers say.
The New York Times in 2015 reported Coca-Cola had put up US$1.5 million to set up the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN) with the goal of hijacking the obesity debate.
Critics likened the network, established at two US universities in 2014, to the so-called “merchants of doubt” research organs backed by the tobacco industry to challenge findings about the dangers of second-hand smoke.
But the inference that the beverage giant was bent on steering debate about obesity to suit its own ends at the expense of public health was not so easy to prove.
However, documents obtained through a US freedom-of-information request have shed light on the corporation’s intent, which was to “reframe” obesity as a matter of “addressing energy balance” while portraying the GEBN as an “honest broker”.
Essentially, the policy sought to shift attention from junk food and sugary drinks to the less-urgent-sounding idea of an “energy imbalance” where people needed to do more exercise.
The documents – emails from Coca-Cola employees, including a proposal for the establishment of the network – are the basis for a study published in the current Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
“Here we allow the words of employees of a food and beverage corporation – Coca-Cola – to speak about how it intended to advance its interests by funding a scientific organisation,” the paper says.
For legal reasons, the original documents are not publishable. But the researchers, led by Oxford University sociology PhD candidate Pepita Barlow, have used excerpts to indicate the thinking behind the spin.
“Coca-Cola’s proposal portrays the interests of public health as being in conflict with their own,” the authors write.
“This is evident in the proposal from the argument that the science of ‘energy balance’ could be deployed as a ‘weapon’ in the ‘growing war between the public health community and private industry’ over obesity.
“Coca-Cola was concerned that the company was losing this battle.”
The authors say Coca-Cola attempted to distance itself from the GEBN to conceal its involvement, even though it was promoting a scientific standpoint while offering funding to scientists.
The company proposed the new organisation would help “counter the voices touting extreme solutions to the obesity problem”, but it would not directly attack “unreasonable views”.
Instead Coca-Cola sought to promote a narrative that could challenge the view that diet played a leading role in obesity; the GEBN would “play offence with alternative solutions” rather than “defending the status quo”, the authors write.
By “extreme solutions” and “unreasonable views”, the company was referring to government regulations to tax and ban foods considered to be unhealthy, the authors say.
The documents revealed the company envisioned the network as a long-term project to influence the scientific community.
It would build on experience in engaging experts “to frame problems differently” and develop white papers aimed at policy-makers.
It would also “serve as a conduit to linking funding sources with innovative new research ideas” and “the most influential researchers using an energy balance approach”.
The communications strategy extended to health professionals, journalists, the public, and partnerships with global organisations.
In the event, the “energy balance” campaign turned into a public relations disaster for Coca-Cola as prominent American public-health physicians rubbished its claims as scientific nonsense.
The GEBN ceased to exist in December 2015 when the company cancelled its funding, not six months after the New York Times story broke.
In conclusion, the paper’s authors said the episode added weight to concerns about food industry involvement in scientific organisations, noting similarities with Big Tobacco’s efforts to cast doubt on links between smoking and cancer.
The email correspondence was obtained by Gary Ruskin, a co-director of US Right to Know, a consumer and public health group that focuses on the food industry. Ruskin is named as a co-author of the journal article.