- New York Times, by Sheila Kaplan, 7/22/2017: “New C.D.C. Chief Saw Coca-Cola as Ally in Obesity Fight”
- Forbes, Part 2 by Rob Waters, “The Coca-Cola Network: Soda Giant Mines Connections with Officials and Scientists to Wield Influence”
By Rob Waters
Part 1 of 2 stories
For many years, The Coca-Cola Company, the world’s largest seller of sugary drinks, has sought to influence health policy and public opinion by forging ties with influential scientists and officials, including at the nation’s top public health agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Now the Trump administration has appointed a new CDC chief, Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, who, as Georgia public health commissioner for the past six years, partnered with Coke to run a program against child obesity. Coca-Cola KO +0.00% gave $1 million to Georgia SHAPE, which seeks to increase physical activity in schools but is silent about reducing soda consumption, even though studies have found that high sugar intake, especially in liquid form, is a driver of obesity and diabetes, as well as cancer and heart disease.
In a 2013 press conference, Fitzgerald praised Coke for its “generous award.” She wrote a commentary about the obesity epidemic for Coca-Cola’s website declaring the need to “get our students moving.” And in an interview with a local TV station, she made clear her priorities. Georgia SHAPE, she said, is “going to concentrate on what you should eat”—while saying nothing about what you shouldn’t.
The agency Fitzgerald will now run already had cozy relationships with Coca-Cola. These connections can be seen in emails that circulated between Coke executives, CDC officials and a network of people from universities and industry-backed organizations funded by companies including Coke, Nestlé, Mars Inc. and Mondelez, formerly known as Kraft. The emails, released by the CDC in response to public records requests submitted by U.S. Right to Know, are chatty, sometimes plaintive, often affectionate and occasionally angry and urgent.
In an October 2015 email, Barbara Bowman, a CDC official who has since resigned, offers her appreciation to former Coca-Cola executive Alex Malaspina for a recent dinner. “What a lovely time we had on Saturday nights, many thanks, Alex, for your hospitality.”
In another 2015 email to a group of scientists, all of whom have received research funding from Coca-Cola or other industry-backed organizations, Malaspina asks for “any ideas on how we can counteract” recommendations from a committee of experts advising the U.S. government. The committee wants the government to urge Americans to reduce their consumption of sugar, meat and sodium. In his email, Malaspina dismisses these suggestions as “not based on science.”
And in another note, Coca-Cola executive Rhona Applebaum writes to a CDC official and a Louisiana State University researcher who is leading a large study on child obesity. She has just learned that Mexico is declining to participate in the study because Coke is funding it, and she’s peeved. “So if good scientists take $$$ from Coke–what–they’re corrupted?” she writes.
‘Why is Coke talking to CDC?’
The emails provide a glimpse of the ways that Coca-Cola use connections forged with health officials and scientists to influence policy-makers and journalists. The efforts come at the expense of public health, according to academic researchers who questioned the appropriateness of contacts between Coke and CDC.
“Why is Coke talking to CDC at all? Why is there any line of communication?” asked Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California San Francisco who researches the effects of sugar consumption on children and adults. “The contact is completely inappropriate and they’re obviously trying to use it to exert influence on a government agency.”
Many of the emails were not directly addressed to anyone at CDC, yet were turned over by the agency to comply with public records requests. This suggests some CDC officials were sent bcc:’s or blind copies.
The emails offer a look at the global network created by Malaspina, a former senior vice president of external affairs at Coca-Cola. The network includes:
- The International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), a global organization whose members, according to its website “are companies from the food, agricultural, chemical, pharmaceutical, and biotechnology and supporting industries.” Coca-Cola was among ILSI’s original funders and Malaspina was its founding president. A budget document obtained by US Right to Know suggests that Coca-Cola gave ILSI $167,000 in 2012 and 2013.
- The International Food Information Council (IFIC), a Washington-based nonprofit supported by food companies and trade associations including Coca-Cola, the American Beverage Association, the Hershey Company and Cargill Inc. According to its website, IFIC works to “effectively communicate science-based information” about food and “helps journalists and bloggers writing about health, nutrition and food safety.”
- An assortment of academic scientists with a history of conducting research sponsored by Coca-Cola or ILSI.
Malaspina, who remained involved with Coca-Cola and ILSI after leaving the soda company, emerges in the emails as a principal connecting node in the network. For example, after asking for advice on how to discredit the 2015 recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, he praises the Food Council’s efforts to influence reporters writing about them.
‘Coming Through for Industry’
The Council has just held a media call with 40 reporters to criticize the committee’s recommendations, which IFIC viewed as “demonizing” sugar, meat and potatoes. After the media call, IFIC representatives boasted in an internal memo that they’d influenced the coverage of a number of reporters. Malaspina receives a copy of the memo and forwards it to his colleagues at Coke and his contacts at the CDC.
“IFIC is coming through for industry,” Malaspina writes.
A spokeswoman for the CDC, Kathy Harben, said in an email that her agency “works with the private sector because public-private partnerships advance CDC’s mission of protecting Americans. CDC ensures that, when we engage with the private sector, we are good stewards of the funds entrusted to us and maintain our scientific integrity by participating in a conflict of interest review process that is intended to be both rigorous and transparent.”
Financial ties and questionable contacts between Coca-Cola, academic researchers and the CDC have been exposed in several reports in the past two years.
‘Energy Balance Network’
In 2015, the New York Times and later the Associated Press reported that Rhona Applebaum, Coke’s chief health and science officer, had orchestrated grants to the University of Colorado and the University of South Carolina to start a nonprofit group, the Global Energy Balance Network, that would “inject sanity and reason” into discussions about obesity.
The goal was to push the idea that weight gain is as much related to people’s inadequate physical activity as to their consumption of sugar and calories. After Coca-Cola’s funding was exposed, the energy balance network was disbanded and the University of Colorado announced it would return $1 million to Coke. Applebaum retired three months after the Times story.
Last year, Barbara Bowman announced her retirement from the CDC two days after US Right to Know reported that she had advised Malaspina on ways to influence the World Health Organization and its Director-General Margaret Chan. The WHO had just issued guidelines recommending greatly reduced consumption of sugar, and Malaspina considered these a “threat to our business.”
Other records obtained last year by US Right to Know show that Michael Pratt, senior advisor for global health in the CDC’s National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, had conducted research funded by Coca-Cola and been an advisor to ILSI.
‘We’ll Do Better’
In August 2015, two weeks after the Times story, Coca-Cola Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Muhtar Kent acknowledged in a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled “We’ll Do Better” that the company’s funding of scientific research had, in many cases, “served only to create more confusion and mistrust.” The company later disclosed that from 2010 to the end of last year, it had spent $138 million funding outside researchers and health programs and created a “transparency” website listing recipients of its funding.
Coca-Cola says it now supports the WHO recommendations that Malaspina wanted to discredit — that people limit their sugar intake to 10% of the calories they consume each day. “We’ve begun our journey towards that goal as we evolve our business strategy to become a total beverage company,” Coca-Cola spokeswoman Katherine Schermerhorn said in an email.
Coca-Cola also pledged to provide no more than 50% of the cost of any scientific research. Will that make a difference in the outcome of the studies? Coca-Cola critics are skeptical, noting that previous studies funded by Coke minimized the negative health impacts of sugar-sweetened or diet beverages. I’ll take a closer look tomorrow at some of the studies that Coke funded – and then passed on to its contacts at the CDC.
Rob Waters is a health and science writer based in Berkeley, California and an investigative reporter for US Right to Know. This story originally appeared in Forbes on July 10.