Commentary: Coca-Cola’s “war” with the public health community
An inside look at Coca-Cola's manipulation masquerading as science
In 2016, I obtained, via a public records request, an internal memorandum of The Coca-Cola Company proposing to launch a new scientific organization called the Global Energy Balance Network.
The premise for the network was to promote the idea that exercise, much more than dietary change, is the solution to the global obesity epidemic.
My colleagues and I recently wrote about it for the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, presenting Coca-Cola's unvarnished thoughts on the "public health community" and how to deal with issues surrounding obesity and responsibility for this public health crisis.
There is much for citizens and public health professionals to learn from the Coke memo as it lays bare how the company aims to control the conversation over public policy and consumer choices pertaining to obesity.
The memo was sent by Rhona Applebaum, then Coke's chief science and health officer. It was sent amid increasing evidence that sugary sodas are in part responsible for the global obesity epidemic, as well as its death toll.
I'm going to quote often from the memo, to let Coke's words speak for themselves: "There is growing war between the public health community and private industry over how to reduce obesity." The "most extreme public health experts have gained traction with the media, with many policy makers, and with an increasing proportion of the general public." Such experts "have gained national and international exposure" by casting food companies "as the villain, even likening them to tobacco companies."
The memo emphasizes the need to "to counter the voices touting extreme solutions to the obesity problem" such as "food is tobacco."
The Global Energy Balance Network would address this problem by recruiting hundreds of scientists into a group that could act as a "credible honest broker in this battle" and "a reliable and trusted source for a balanced, science based view" – all while being covertly controlled by Coca-Cola.
The group would "promote collaboration [between industry and government] rather than regulation as the strategy most likely to be effective in reducing obesity."
And while the group was intended to look science-based, it was actually "a multi-year advocacy 'campaign' that serves as a counterforce to one-sided, regulation-driven proponents" to "change the conversation" and to "promote best practices that are effective in terms of both policy and profit," according to the memo.
This work is conceived of as "akin to a political campaign" as well as an effort to propel Coke's academic allies into power by "actively nominat[ing] GEBN scholars for key government panels".
One of the group's proposed activities was to use supposedly independent scientists in "educating journalists." The memo recounts that in 2012 the University of Colorado "hosted a 3 day educational event for 20 of the leading health & wellness journalist[s] in the country" which Coca-Cola believed was "an enormous success" and "needs to be scaled globally on an annual basis."
This dovetails with other documents that describe how Coca-Cola secretly funded such conferences for medical and science journalists.
The worldview presented in the Coke memo is further explained in an email between two former Coke executives, which we wrote about for Critical Public Health. That paper explains how Coke and the food industry manipulate external organizations like pawns on a grand political chessboard to defeat public health forces, "by co-opting academic contacts, infiltrating major scientific bodies and medical associations, and influencing the generation of scientific evidence."
These documents are useful because they inform us about the context of some public health work and how it might be more effective. They remind us that sometimes corporations see themselves at "war" with the "public health community."
The documents make clear that Coca-Cola viewed its new front group and the group's scientists as crucial to the deployment of effective messaging on obesity because these scientists would be more credible than corporate spokespeople. Coca-Cola was deeply concerned about analogizing its products to tobacco. And Coca-Cola viewed promoting alternate views of science – in this case, trumpeting exercise rather than drinking less soda -- as the "most effective weapon" in the "war" to defend its profits.
Perhaps more than anything else, these documents suggest the perils of working collaboratively with companies that harm public health, because they may intend such collaborations as a form of manipulation, to detract from the effectiveness of public health initiatives, as well as a shield against legislation, regulation and accountability.
Gary Ruskin is co-director of U.S. Right to Know, a consumer and public health watchdog group.