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Coca-Cola’s work with scientists was ‘a low point in the history of public health’

Coca-Cola ‘paid scientists to downplay how sugary drinks triggered the obesity crisis between 2013-2015,’ study of a medical journal found

  • Founded in 2014, the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN) claimed to be a group of researchers who studied causes of obesity
  • Researchers now say it was “ front group ” for Coca-Cola to promote that a lack of exercise, not a bad diet or sugar, is causing the U.S. obesity epidemic
  • An analysis of emails revealed that GEBN was trying to downplay Coca-Cola as a donor and how much it donated
  • The beverage company also supported a close-knit team of academics called the ’email family’

Coca-Cola’s work with scientists to downplay the role sugar plays in contributing to obesity has been called a “low point in this history of public health.”

The beverage company donated millions of dollars to a team of researchers from a nonprofit that claimed to investigate the causes of overweight in the U.S.

However, the team became a “ front group ” for Coca-Cola, promoting the idea that lack of exercise, not a bad diet, was the main driver of the American obesity epidemic.

In addition, the group tried to downplay the fact that Coca-Cola was a donor to its research and how much money the company donated.

Investigators now say the nonprofit GEBN was `` front group '' for Coca-Cola to promote that a lack of exercise, not a bad diet or sugar, is causing the U.S. obesity epidemic (file image)

Investigators now say the nonprofit GEBN was “ front group ” for Coca-Cola to promote that a lack of exercise, not a bad diet or sugar, is causing the U.S. obesity epidemic (file image)

For the analysis, published in Public health food, researchers from Oxford University; the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine; the University of Bocconi in Milan, Italy; and US Right to Know worked together.

They looked at over 18,000 pages of emails between the Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta, West Virginia University and the University of Colorado.

Both universities were part of the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN) and claimed to be a nonprofit organization that studied obesity, running from 2014 to 2015.

But academics now say the group was created by Coke to minimize the links between obesity and sugary drinks.

Coca-Cola funded GEBN directly, contributed at least $ 1.5 million in 2015, and distributed millions more to GEBN-affiliated academics to conduct research.

“Coke used public health scientists to implement classic tobacco tactics to protect profits,” said Gary Ruskin, the executive director of US Right to Know

“It’s a low point in public health history and a warning about the dangers of accepting corporate finance for public health work.”

There were two main strategies, the first of which was information and messaging.

This included covering up Coca-Cola as a source of funding and shaping the evidence based on nutrition and public health issues.

For example, the researchers tried to increase the number of partners and donors in one e-mail chain, so that it did not seem as if Coca-Cola was the primary donor.

“We will definitely have to reveal this [Coca-Cola funding] at a given moment. Our preference would be to have other financiers on board first … At this moment we have two financiers. Coca Cola and an anonymous individual donor … do the universities, as financiers / supporters, pass the red face test? read an email.

They also asked if universities had a policy of disclosing the amount of gifts so they didn’t have to disclose how much Coca-Cola gave.

“We manage some GEBN studies and although we disclose Coke as a sponsor, we don’t want to reveal how much they gave,” read another email.

The second strategy was to form coalitions, including setting up Coca-Cola’s network of researchers and establishing relationships with policymakers.

This included researchers meeting members of the West Virginia and Coca-Cola legislatures who supported a small group of scientists called the “ email family ” by then-vice president of Coca-Cola Rhona Applebaum.

“Coke’s” email family “is just the latest example of the terrible commercialization of the university and public health,” said Ruskin.

“Public health scientists in an” email family “with Coca-Cola are like criminologists in an email family with Al Capone.”

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