Archive for January 2016
By: Danielle Friend, Ph.D.
This story is not a new one. A company develops a product and uses mass media to market the product to people all over the globe. The product becomes a household name. Several years later, scientists discover that the product contains ingredients that are unhealthy and may actually cause health problems. In response, the company attempts to place blame elsewhere, tries to discredit scientific findings, and confuse the consumer. This time, however, we are not describing the Tobacco industry. No, this time it is the soda industry.
Although obesity rates may no longer be on the rise as they were between the years of 1988 and 2000, rates are anything but declining. In 2014 it was estimated that 29 percent of American adults were obese and even a greater percentage were overweight. It will likely not surprise anyone to know that production and consumption of sugary beverages, like soda, have tracked with obesity rates surprisingly well. In fact, soda sales and consumption were at their highest during the years in which obesity rates showed the steepest increase, and now as soda production and consumption have decreased, obesity rates have plateaued. What led to this decrease in soda sales and consumption is likely a mix of several factors. Government agencies implementing “Soda Taxes,” regulations regarding the availability of soda in schools, and the restrictions on marketing towards children have all likely made an impact. In fact, American consumption of full calorie sodas has decreased by 25 percent since the 1990s indicating that these regulations have encouraged consumers to make healthier choices.
However, to counteract consumers’ growing concerns about “cutting calories” (and potentially their products), Coca-Cola, the largest producer of sodas, has recently gone to great lengths to shift consumers’ concerns regarding the obesity epidemic from what they eat to how much they exercise. In August of 2015, the New York Times reported that Coca-Cola had spent more than $1.5 million on the establishment of what was known as the Global Energy Balance Network or GEBN, a “voluntary public-private, not-for-profit organization dedicated to identifying and implementing innovative solutions – based on the science of energy balance – to prevent and reduce diseases associated with inactivity, poor nutrition and obesity.” When developing the GEBN, Coca-Cola appointed Dr. Steven Blair, a professor of Exercise Science and Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of South Carolina’s School of Public Health, and Gregory A. Hand, Dean of the School of Public Health at West Virginia University as GEBN administrators, and James O. Hill, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado Health Science Center the president of the GEBN. Most shockingly, early on in the establishment of the GEBN, Coca-Cola’s role in appointing the group’s leaders, establishing the mission statement, and funding of the program were hidden from the public. In addition to establishing the GEBN, since 2010, Coca-Cola has gifted more than $21.8 million to scientific research and an additional $96.8 million to other health and wellness partnerships that tote the company’s moto “when it comes to weight don’t worry about what you eat, focus on exercising”, a statement that no doubt would help hurting soda sales. In addition to teaming with scientists to dissipate the blame on the soda industry for the rise in obesity, Coca-Cola has also spent more than $120 million since 2010 to support other partnerships, including more than $3 million to the American Academy of Pediatrics to launch another website known as Healthychildren.org, and more than 1.7 million to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
In addition to the report in the New York Times, in August of 2015, the advocacy group, The Center for Science in the Public Interest, released a letter signed by 37 scientists and public health experts accusing the GEBN of “peddling scientific non-sense.” In response to this criticism, in August, the Chief Technical Officer at Coca-Cola released a statement, “I was dismayed to read the recent New York Times’ inaccurate portrayal of our company and our support of the [GEBN]. The story claimed Coke is funding scientific research to convince people that diets don’t matter – only exercise does. In fact, that is the complete opposite of our approach to business and well-being and nothing could be further from the truth.” He goes on to say that “At Coke, we believe that a balanced diet and regular exercise are two key ingredients for a healthy lifestyle and that is reflected in both our long-term and short-term business actions.”
Despite the denial that Coke attempted to mislead the consumer, as of November 30th 2015, GEBN had been shut down and the home page for the public-private partnership website states “Effective immediately, GEBN is discontinuing operations due to resource limitations. We appreciate the commitment to energy balance that the membership has demonstrated since our inception, and encourage members to continue pursuing the mission “to connect and engage multi-disciplinary scientists and other experts around the globe dedicated to applying and advancing the science of energy balance to achieve healthier living.” In addition, Coca-Cola’s chief science and health officer and cofounder of the GEBN, Rhona D. Applebaum, stepped down from her position. The University of Colorado also stated in November that they will be returning a $1 million grant received from Coca-Cola. The returned money, Coca-Cola states, will be donated to the Boys and Girls Club of America. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics have both stated that their relationship with Cocoa-Cola has been severed.
This situation emphasizes how scientific funding from private sources with an agenda can be of concern to both science and public health. In fact, a recent publication in PLOS Medicine suggested that science funded by large soda companies such as Coca-Cola or the American Beverage Association are five times more likely to report no link between sugary drink consumption and weight gain compared to science that does not have a financial conflict of interest. Increased transparency regarding scientific and advocacy funding could be one way in which consumers would be better protected from misguided information in the future. Scientists and medical professionals are already required to declare financial conflicts of interest, however media coverage of privately funded research findings should emphasize the potential bias. Furthermore, public health organizations and advocacy programs, such as the GEBN, must be required to fully disclose funding sources.