Nonprofit Health Group Tried To Bury Funding From Coca-Cola, Study Says

'Public health academics in an email family with Coke is like criminologists in an email family with Al Capone.' - Gary Ruskin, study author. Image: Alexander Tolstykh/Shutterstock

A nonprofit group that was accused of downplaying the link between poor diets and obesity wanted to hide that it had received a huge amount of funding from Coca-Cola, according to a new study published today. 

Furthermore, the investigation argues that Coca-Cola supported a tight-knit “email family” of scientists and researchers to promote its own interests.

The story begins in 2015 when the Coca-Cola Company was found to have provided millions of dollars and logistical support to a new nonprofit organization called the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN). Through scientific studies, PR spin, and social media, the GEBM subtly pushed the idea that the public debate around obesity was too focused on junk food and dietary choices when it should be targeting a lack of exercise. 

This narrative seemingly benefited Coca-Cola as it suggests sugary soda isn’t a big problem as long as you exercise enough. In an email obtained by the Associated Press in 2015, a scientist who served as the GEBN’s president tells a top Coke 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.”

While Coca-Cola did not directly control the research, the controversy raised some serious questions about how public health research was being influenced by big business. The GEBN was disbanded in November 2015 following the scandal. 

Now, emails appear to reveal more insights into this relationship between Coca-Cola and scientists affiliated with GEBN, as well as attempts to obscure Coca-Cola as the chief source of cash. 

“It's a low point in the history of public health work,” Gary Ruskin, study author and executive director of US Right to Know, told IFLScience.

“It's not the kind of thing you would expect public health academics to participate in,” he adds. “But they did.”

Reported in the journal Public Health Nutrition, the new study is based on over 18,000 pages of emails obtained from state public records requests by US Right to Know, a nonprofit consumer rights group, that show correspondence between the Coca-Cola Company and scientists at West Virginia University and the University of Colorado, two institutions that were previously involved in the GEBN.

In one email chain, researchers were toying with the idea of diversifying the number of partners and institutions that fund the work. 

“They wanted to inflate the number of GEBN funders, thereby trying to make it seem like Coke wasn't the prime mover. They didn't want to disclose Coke's major funding at the outset. And though they knew at some point that they had to disclose that Coke was a donor, they didn't want to disclose how much Coke gave,” explained Ruskin.

While on the topic of disclosing Coke’s funding, a professor of medicine at the University of Colorado wrote in an email: “We are certainly going to have to disclose this [Coca-Cola funding] at some point. Our preference would be to have other funders on board first… Right now, we have two funders. Coca Cola and an anonymous individual donor… Does including the Universities as funders/supporters pass the red face test?”

In another email, he wrote “We are managing some GEBN inquiries and while we disclose Coke as a sponsor we don’t want to disclose how much they gave.”

Coca Cola has previously apologized for its links with the GEBN. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed published in 2015, former Coca-Cola Chief Executive Officer Muhtar Kent wrote: “By supporting research and nonprofit organizations, we seek to foster more science-based knowledge to better inform the debate about how best to deal with the obesity epidemic. We have never attempted to hide that. However, in the future we will act with even more transparency as we refocus our investments and our efforts on well-being.”

The new study also claims there is clear evidence of  "coalition building," an attempt by Coca-Cola to maintain a network of friendly voices that it could use to promote an alternative science in its own interest. In the words of the study: “Coca-Cola supported a network of academics, as an ‘email family’ that promoted messages associated with its public relations strategy, and sought to support those academics in advancing their careers and building their affiliated public health and medical institutions.”

“This is a classic tobacco strategy – to posit ‘alternative science’ that could be used to undermine the dominant scientific narrative that sugary sodas are in part responsible for the global obesity and type 2 diabetes epidemics,” Ruskin told IFLScience. 

“Public health academics in an email family with Coke is like criminologists in an email family with Al Capone,” he said in a statement.  

“It still is paying dividends for Coke,” Ruskin added. “The false notion that you can outrun or outcycle a bad diet still lives on.”  

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