Researchers have found that Coca-Cola paid a front-group of scientists to downplay the dangers of sugar in its beverages, as well as to promote the idea that a lack of exercise, not its drinks, is the major cause of obesity in the United States.
The revelation comes from a team of researchers at the University of Cambridge, who were attempting to determine “the extent to which Coca-Cola tried to influence research in the Global Energy Balance Network,” a non-profit organisation set up to find the major causes of weight gain in the United States.
While researching their hypothesis, the team of researchers found that the Global Energy Balance Network was primarily set up to publish findings that a lack of exercise was a dominant driver of obesity in an effort to drive criticism away from drinks like Coca-Cola.
The Global Energy Balance Network was created in 2014, and was said to be an independent research group analysing the predominant causes of obesity in the United States.
Just a year later, it disappeared.
In their results, the group of academics say that “despite publications claiming independence, we found evidence that Coca-Cola made significant efforts to divert attention from its role as a funding source through diversifying funding partners and, in some cases, withholding information on the funding involved.”
“We also found documentation 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,” researchers say.
According to a statement from the US Right to Know Group, “Coke created the GEBN to downplay the links between obesity and sugary drinks, as part of its ‘war’ with the public health community,” and make conscientious efforts to hide their connection to the research group.
They claim that Coca-Cola also attempted to hide its connection and donations to the non-profit, after using freedom of information requests to obtain 18,030 pages of email correspondence between Coca-Cola and academics at the University of Colorado, West Virginia and the Global Energy Balance Network.
In one of those emails, a researcher at the Global Energy Balance Network was found to be discussing donations made to the GEBN to distance Coca-Cola from the organisation.
“We are certainly going to have to disclose this [Coca-Cola funding] at some point,” it read. “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?”
“Coke used public health academics to carry out classic tobacco tactics to protect its profits,” executive director of the US Right to Know, Gary Ruskin said. “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,” Ruskin added.
“Coke’s email family is just the latest example of the appalling commercialisation of the university and public health work,” Ruskin continued to explain, adding that “public health academics in an ‘email family’ with Coke is like having criminologists in an email family with Al Capone.”
In their conclusion, the group of academics wrote that “Coca-Cola sought to obscure its relationship with researchers, minimise the public perception of its role and use these researchers to promote industry-friendly messaging.”
“More robust approaches for managing conflicts of interest are needed to address, diffuse and obscure patterns of industry influence,” reads the outline of the report.