Coca-Cola Front Group Tried to Obscure Coke’s Funding & Key Role, Study Says
Coca-Cola Kept “Email Family” of Public Health Academic Allies
Coca-Cola Co. and academics at its front group Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN) tried to obscure Coke’s central role and funding for the group, according to a new study published today in Public Health Nutrition. Coke and the academics tried to dilute the apparent size of Coke’s $1.5 million contribution as well as the company’s role in creating the GEBN. Coke also maintained an “email family” of public health academics whom Coke used to promote its interests.
The study was based on documents obtained via state public records requests by U.S. Right to Know, an investigative public health and consumer group. Coke created the GEBN to downplay the links between obesity and sugary drinks, as a part of its “war” with the public health community. GEBN went defunct in 2015.
“This is a story about how Coke used public health academics to carry out classic tobacco tactics to protect its profits,” said Gary Ruskin, executive director of U.S. Right to Know. “It’s a low point in the history of public health, and a warning about the perils of accepting corporate funding for public health work.”
Regarding Coke’s funding, John Peters, a professor of medicine at the University of Colorado, stated: “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….Jim [Hill] and Steve [Blair], does including the Universities as funders/supporters pass the red face test?”
In another email, John Peters explains, “We are managing some GEBN inquiries and while we disclose Coke as a sponsor we don’t want to disclose how much they gave.”
The paper also provides evidence of Coke’s leadership of a tight-knit group of public health academics who issued research and public relations messaging supportive of Coke. Rhona Applebaum, then-VP and chief science and health officer at Coke, used the term “email family” to describe the network. The paper states that, “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.”
“Coke’s ‘email family’ is just the latest example of the appalling commercialization of the university and public health work,” Ruskin said. “Public health academics in an email family with Coke is like criminologists in an email family with Al Capone.”
Today’s study in Public Health Nutrition is titled “Evaluating Coca-Cola’s attempts to influence public health ‘in their own words’: analysis of Coca-Cola emails with public health academics leading the Global Energy Balance Network.” It was co-authored by Paulo Serôdio, research fellow at the University of Barcelona; Gary Ruskin, executive director of U.S. Right to Know; Martin McKee, professor of European public health, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine; and David Stuckler, professor at Bocconi University.
The co-authors of today’s study also wrote a study about Coke and GEBN for the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health titled “Science organisations and Coca-Cola’s ‘war’ with the public health community: insights from an internal industry document.”
Documents from this study are available at the UCSF Food Industry Documents Archive, in the U.S. Right to Know Food Industry Collection, at https://www.industrydocuments.ucsf.edu/food/collections/usrtk-food-industry-collection/.