Coca-Cola Was Less Than Hands Off With the Anti-Obesity Group It Funded
The $1.5 million the Coca-Cola Co. donated to help start the Global Energy Balance Network, a nonprofit that promotes exercise, came with more strings attached than the soda maker and the scientists behind GEBN have let on.
When The New York Times reported on the relationship between the company and GEBN in August, it started to unravel a long-standing practice of Coke giving money to medical researchers, nutritionists, and others in the public health sphere that, critics say, were prone to pushing the corporate line that lack of exercise, not a high-sugar diet, is to blame for America’s high obesity rates.
“Our engagement and financial support of these well-respected experts, institutions, and organizations were made with the best of intentions—to inform our business, support our local communities, and support solutions to the public health issues facing people across the United States and around the world,” Sandy Douglas, Coke’s president for North America, said in a September statement when the company disclosed the recipients of some $120 million in funding. (In October the University of Colorado returned $1 million of the money that went toward forming GEBN.)
On Tuesday, The Associated Press published excerpts of email exchanges between executives at Coke and GEBN that would strongly suggest otherwise.
"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," James Hill, GEBN’s president, wrote in an email to a Coke exec.
In a statement, Hill told the AP that Coca-Cola helped with GEBN’s “organizational structure” but that it was otherwise “hands off.”
Other internal emails at Coca-Cola cast doubt on that assertion. “A proposal circulated via email at the company laid out a vision for a group that would ‘quickly establish itself as the place the media goes to for comment on any obesity issue,’ ” reporter Candice Choi wrote. “It said the group would use social media and run a political-style campaign to counter the ‘shrill rhetoric’ of ‘public health extremists’ who want to tax or limit foods they deem unhealthy.” Coke even weighed in on the GEBN logo, which was initially blue, alluding that it was too similar to the branding of its main competitor, Pepsi.
Recent obesity numbers published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put the U.S. obesity rate at 36 percent for adults in 2014—up six points since 1999. The child obesity rate is at 17 percent. With numerous studies showing that beverages like soda are significantly contributing to obesity and that taxing or otherwise regulating them could help to improve public health, Coke leadership seems to have viewed GEBN as an arm of its PR department rather than as a science-based advocacy group.
In a statement provided to the AP, Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent said, “Clearly, we have more work to do to reflect the values of this great company in all that we do.”