A scathing report has compared Coca-Cola’s undisclosed funding of health-related research and conferences to the deceptive tactics used by the tobacco industry between the 1950s and 1990s.
The investigation, published in the British Medical Journal, has revealed that Coca-Cola covertly funded a series of obesity conferences in the United States aimed at pushing its own corporate agenda – “favourable press coverage of sugar sweetened drinks”.
In one example, a CNN reporter who attended the conference later produced a story proposing that lack of exercise was the cause of obesity, rather than consumption of sugary soft drinks.
Critics told BMJ that Coca-Cola’s $37,000 funding of the event and the resulting story was “a better bargain than an advertisement placed on CNN’s website”.
It drew parallels with the US Environmental Protection Agency’s 1993 report on second-hand smoke, after which the tobacco industry successfully placed stories in major print publications about the report’s “scientific weakness” to help build “considerable reasonable doubt” among smokers.
The author of the BMJ report, Mr Paul Thacker, told The New Daily it was becoming increasingly difficult to find people in the food industry who were independent.
“It’s almost like you can tell who funded a research study just by looking at its findings,” Mr Thacker said, adding: “They almost inevitably favour the funder.”
Responding to questions from The New Daily, a US-based spokesman for the Coca-Cola Company said the organisation had begun implementing new “guiding principles” in 2016 regarding its funding of scientific research.
“Our previous support of such research produced scientifically valid results, but we recognised an opportunity to avoid some of the questions that result when we are the sole funder,” the spokesperson said.
“Under our new guiding principles, we will not provide, either directly or through a third party (such as a trade association), all of the funding for well-being scientific research. We will instead provide financial support for such research only if a non-Coca-Cola entity funds at least 50 per cent of the cost.”
In mid-2015, Coca-Cola confirmed that it provided funding to a research group that claimed the main cause of obesity was physical inactivity, not overeating – a convenient message for a soft drink seller.
Coca-Cola spent $1.7 million over a five-year period funding Australian research relating to “nutrition and health”, “physical activity” and “wellbeing programs”, Fairfax reported last year.
It was later exposed that Coca-Cola had a “secret plan” to monitor research at Sydney University’s Charles Perkins Centre into the integrity of industry-sponsored research.
Earlier this year, Bloomberg reported the Coca-Cola Company was being sued by activists who compared the beverage giant’s advertising strategies to the tobacco industry’s past efforts at diluting concerns over the health effects of its products.
Dangers of undisclosed funding
Mr Thacker said Coca-Cola has tended to gravitate towards “experts” who would relay its agenda.
Obesity Policy Coalition executive manager Jane Martin told The New Daily that whenever a corporation funds research there is a risk the findings might be influenced by the sponsor.
“It’s very dangerous for Coca-Cola to be promoting the message that Coke, which contains around 16 teaspoons of sugar in a 600mL bottle, is part of a healthy balanced diet. It sends the impression that as long as you exercise, you can drink Coca-Cola,” Ms Martin said.
“Not only does their ‘energy balance’ message avoid the dental impacts associated with sugary drink consumption entirely, it also fails to highlight that the average person would have to walk about four kilometres to burn off the sugar in just one 600mL bottle of Coke.”
A bid for greater transparency
Mr Thacker said that health journalists needed to ask more questions, such as ‘Who has funded this study?’ and ‘Who funds the researcher?’
“You might read about an academic telling you climate change isn’t real, but what they don’t tell you is that they’ve received a huge grant from the oil and gas industry,” he said.
“There’s nothing wrong with a corporation funding science. The issue is transparency.”
Ms Martin suggested that universities should develop policies to ensure its academics are not engaged in potential conflicts of interest, as they have done with the tobacco industry.
It identifies the names of more than 120 US academics alone.
But notably, the small print says there were “several individuals with whom we worked with in the past who have declined to have their names listed”.