Coca-Cola can bury adverse findings from health research it funds, study says

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News Release

For immediate release: Tuesday, May 7th at 7:30pm EDT
For More Information Contact: Gary Ruskin (415) 944-7350

Coca-Cola’s research contracts show that it had extensive influence over the public health research it funds, including the power to “prevent publication of unfavourable research” in some cases, according to a new study published today in the Journal of Public Health Policy.

According to the study, public health research contract provisions gave Coca-Cola “the power to terminate studies early and without giving reasons” as well as “the right to review research in advance of publication as well as control over (1) study data, (2) disclosure of results and (3) acknowledgement of Coca-Cola funding. Some agreements specified that Coca-Cola has the ultimate decision about any publication of peer reviewed papers prior to its approval of the researchers’ final report “

“These contracts suggest that Coke wanted the power to bury research it funded that might detract from its image or profits,” said Gary Ruskin, co-director of U.S. Right to Know. “With the power to trumpet positive findings and bury negative ones, Coke-funded ‘science’ seems somewhat less than science and more like an exercise in public relations.”

The study is based on Coca-Cola research contacts obtained via Freedom of Information requests by U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit consumer and public health research group. From 2015 through 2018, U.S. Right to Know (USRTK) filed 129 FOI requests in the United States, Australia, Britain, Canada and Denmark, seeking documents about Coca-Cola or allied groups, or other aspects of the food industry. These FOI requests turned up 87,013 pages, including five agreements for Coca-Cola funded research, which were then analyzed.

The Journal of Public Health Policy paper was co-authored by Sarah Steele, senior research associate at the University of Cambridge; Gary Ruskin, co-director of U.S. Right to Know; Martin McKee, professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine; and, David Stuckler, professor at Bocconi University.

Coca-Cola’s research contracts are typical of other corporate funding contracts for public health research. Given corporate influence over corporate-funded public health research, and the inadequacy of standard conflict of interest statements to describe this influence, the study’s authors “recommend journals supplement funding disclosures and conflict-of-interest statements by requiring authors to attach funder agreements.”

The study raises particular concerns about the prospect of early termination of corporate-funded public health research, and the impact such termination may have on knowledge of the public health effects of corporate products or practices. The authors recommend that “Where studies are terminated without having been registered in advance, as should be the case with clinical trials, it may be that termination acts as suppression of critical health information. We therefore call for industry funders to publish complete lists of terminated studies as part of their commitment to act with integrity, and for clear declarations of involvement as standard publication practice.”

“We are already hearing accusations from experts in nutrition that the food industry is copying tactics from big tobacco’s playbook,” said Sarah Steele, the lead author of the study. “Corporate social responsibility has to be more than just shiny websites stating progressive policies that get ignored.”

U.S. Right to Know is a nonprofit consumer and public health group that investigates food industry practices and influence on public policy. See our academic papers here.


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