Trump’s New CDC Pick Boosts Agency’s Ties To Coca Cola

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See also:

  • 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.

Journalists Fail to Reveal Sources Funded by Coca-Cola: A Short Report

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During the investigation and subsequent collapse of the Coca-Cola front group Global Energy Balance Network, the New York Times and Associated Press discovered that prominent university professors working on obesity issues had been funded by The Coca-Cola Company.

This is not just a public health scandal.  It is a journalistic one as well.

Journalists have quoted two of these professors at least 30 times in news articles, after the professors had received their Coca-Cola funding, but without mentioning that funding in their articles.  Many of the news outlets that published these articles are influential, such as The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Boston Globe, The Atlantic Monthly, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek and National Public Radio.

It is a conflict of interest for professors working on obesity issues to accept funding from Coca-Cola. There is now substantial medical evidence that soda and the soda industry – and especially Coca-Cola and PepsiCo – are in part responsible for our nation’s obesity epidemic, and increase the incidence of diabetes and heart disease.

If a professor takes money from one of these soda companies, that is crucial context for their views on obesity, and journalists disserve their readers by failing to report it. Readers need to know who pays sources to evaluate the legitimacy and biases of these sources.

The net effect of quoting these professors without disclosing their Coca-Cola funding is to unfairly enhance their credibility, while undermining the credibility of public health and consumer advocates.

This short report reviews news coverage quoting two leaders of the Coca-Cola front group Global Energy Balance Network: Professors James O. Hill and Steven N. Blair.

James O. Hill was president of the Global Energy Balance Network.  He is a professor of pediatrics and medicine at the University of Colorado, and director of their Center for Human Nutrition.  According to Associated Press, Professor Hill wrote privately to a Coca-Cola executive, “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.”

According to the New York Times, Coca-Cola “last year gave an ‘unrestricted monetary gift’ of $1 million to the University of Colorado Foundation … the university said that Coca-Cola had provided the money ‘for the purposes of funding’ the Global Energy Balance Network.”

According to Associated Press, “Since 2010, Coke said it gave $550,000 to Hill that was unrelated to the [Global Energy Balance Network] group. A big part of that was research he and others were involved with, but the figure also covers travel expenses and fees for speaking engagements and other work.”

Steven N. Blair was vice president of the Global Energy Balance Network.  He is a professor at the Arnold School of Public Health, in the departments of exercise science and epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of South Carolina.  According to the New York Times, when Professor Blair was announcing the Global Energy Balance Network, he made the following incorrect claim: “Most of the focus in the popular media and in the scientific press is, ‘Oh they’re eating too much, eating too much, eating too much’ — blaming fast food, blaming sugary drinks and so on… And there’s really virtually no compelling evidence that that, in fact, is the cause.”

According to the New York Times, “Dr. Blair had received more than $3.5 million in funding from Coke for research projects since 2008.”

Following is a list of 30 news articles written after Professors Hill and Blair received funding from Coca-Cola (after January 1, 2011 for Hill, and January 1, 2009 for Blair) in which journalists failed to disclose that Professors Hill and Blair were funded by Coca-Cola.

  1. Los Angeles Times: Steps, Time, Distance: However Measured, Walking Can Reach Health Goals. By Mary MacVean, September 6, 2013.
  2. Los Angeles Times: ‘Fed Up’ Documentary Lays Blame for American Obesity on Food Industry. By Mary MacVean, May 9, 2014.
  3. Los Angeles Times: Obesity Rates in U.S. Appear to Be Finally Leveling Off. By Shari Roan, January 17, 2012.
  4. Los Angeles Times: Halloween’s Dilemma: Candy vs. Healthful Treats. By Karen Ravn, October 31, 2011.
  5. Los Angeles Times: Swimming with the Fittest? By Judy Foreman, July 19, 2010.
  6. Los Angeles Times: Stay Moving, Not Still. By Jeannine Stein, July 13, 2009.
  7. Los Angeles Times: Cities Try To Cut The Fat With Weight-Loss Programs. By Karen Ravn, January 31, 2011.
  8. USA Today: Retirement: The Payoffs of an Active Lifestyle. By Nanci Hellmich, April 16, 2015.
  9. USA Today: Holiday Weight Gain Isn’t Inevitable. By Nanci Hellmich, December 2, 2013.
  10. USA Today: Flex Your Metabolism and Melt Off Pounds. By Nanci Hellmich, August 19, 2013.
  11. USA Today: Adidas MiCoach, Nike+, Sensor Devices Get People Exercising. By Janice Lloyd, January 27, 2010.
  12. USA Today: Americans Fighting Fat, But Odds Stacked Against Them. By Nanci Hellmich, November 5, 2012.
  13. National Public Radio (NPR): How We Store Food at Home Could Be Linked to How Much We Eat. By Angus Chen, May 19, 2015.
  14. National Public Radio (NPR): Exercise Studies Find Good News For the Knees. By Allison Aubrey, September 5, 2009.
  15. National Public Radio (NPR): Sitting All Day: Worse For You Than You Might Think. By Patti Neighmond, April 25, 2011.
  16. U.S. News and World Report: What Do Coloradans Know About Fitness That You Don’t? By Elisa Zied, October 8, 2013.
  17. U.S. News and World Report: How to Sit Less and Move More. By Elisa Zied, September 11, 2013.
  18. Boston Globe: Want to Get in Shape? Just Move! By Gareth Cook, January 22, 2012.
  19. Boston Globe: Healthy Steps. By Deborah Kotz, June 27, 2011.
  20. The Atlantic Monthly: How Obesity Became a Disease. By Harriet Brown, March 24, 2015.
  21. Forbes: The 6 Weight-Loss Tips That Science Actually Knows Work. By Alice G. Walton, September 4, 2013.
  22. Forbes: How A Model Figured Out Childhood Obesity. By Trevor Butterworth, August 22, 2013.
  23. Newsweek: Viagra the New Weight Loss Pill? By Trevor Butterworth, January 29, 2013.
  24. The Atlantic Monthly: The Perfected Self. By David H. Freedman, June 2012.
  25. New York Times: Tossing Out the Diet and Embracing the Fat. By Mandy Katz, July 15, 2009.
  26. Washington Post: Is It Possible To Be Fit and Fat? By Rachael Rattner and Live Science, December 16, 2013.
  27. Associated Press (AP): Study Says Even Being a Bit Overweight Is Risky. By Stephanie Nano, December 1, 2010.
  28. Denver Post: Combating Obesity on Several Fronts Helps Reverse Trend in Colorado. By Ally Marotti, August 7, 2013.
  29. Charleston Post and Courier: Study Links Obesity to Work. By David Slade, May 28, 2011.
  30. Peoria Journal-Star: Sedentary Behavior Is a Health Risk That Needs to Be Addressed at All Ages. By Steve Tarter, July 24, 2015.

Why did so many reporters and news outlets fail to disclose the conflicts of interest of these two prominent professors?

How can we prevent similar journalistic failures in the future? One answer is clear: reporters and editors must be on their guard for corporate-funded professors who pose as issue experts but are really acting as mouthpieces for food companies like Coca-Cola.

Readers, too, should be aware that some influential news outlets do not always disclose their sources’ conflicts of interest, which makes their coverage of food and agriculture issues less fair and credible.  It gives readers a legitimate reason to be skeptical of some mainstream media coverage of food and agriculture issues because of pro-industry biases sometimes contained in it.

In November, we wrote a similar report about how journalists failed to disclose sources’ ties to the agrichemical giant Monsanto. Both of these reports highlight the same problem: academics who appear in the media as independent sources when they are actually taking money from companies to promote particular views. Journalists have a responsibility to know and to reveal if their sources are working on behalf of industry.