Selling science, selling soda: How Coca Cola buys credibility from universities

by Nicholas Freudenberg

Eight years ago, I wrote in CHW about how and why corporations buy scientists to advance their business goals.   Sadly, the problem continues. This week the New York Times published a story on how Coca Cola has funded researchers at the University of South Carolina, the University of Colorado and the West Virginia University to make the case that exercise, not reduced consumption of sugary beverages, is the solution to obesity. Coke has also funded the Global Energy Balance Network, a nonprofit network of the researchers it funds, to advance this argument more widely.

Here’s a summary of some of the reactions to the New York Times story.

Writing for The Guardian, Marion Nestle observed:

These days, you almost have to feel sorry for soda companies. Sales of sugar-sweetened   and diet drinks have been falling for a decade in the United States, and a new Gallup Poll says 60% of Americans are trying to avoid drinking soda. In attempts to reverse these trends and deflect concerns about the health effects of sugary drinks, the soda industry invokes elements of the tobacco industry’s classic playbook: cast doubt on the science, discredit critics, invoke nanny statism and attribute obesity to personal irresponsibility.

On the Coca Cola website, Ed Hays, Chief Technical Officer of The Coca-Cola Company, wrote:

I was dismayed to read the recent New York Times’ inaccurate portrayal of our company and our support of the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN). The story claimed Coke      is funding scientific research to convince people that diets don’t matter – only exercise. In fact, that is the complete opposite of our approach to business and well-being and nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, we fund scientific research through GEBN and we are proud to support the work that scientists such as Dr. Jim Hill and Dr. Steve Blair do – because their type of research is critical to finding solutions to the global obesity crisis. At Coke, we believe that a balanced diet and regular exercise are two key ingredients for a healthy lifestyle and that is reflected in both our long-term and short-term business actions…Our business strategy is for more people to enjoy our products more often, but with exactly the size, calories and content that fit their lifestyles. And from top to bottom at Coca-Cola, we have called on our people to innovate on more natural products, to create low-and-no calorie options – and to simply make our packages smaller.

And Congresswoman Rosa Lauro, (Dem-CT), sponsor of The SWEET Act to tax sugars, had this to say, reports Nestle:

This research is reminiscent of the research conducted by the tobacco companies to  mislead the public about the health risks of smoking. The American public will not be fooled. There is a wealth of sound scientific research that demonstrates the link between  sugar-sweetened beverage consumption and a host of health conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. This new group and their research are a sham,”             DeLauro said. “People want to be healthy and they want their kids to be healthy and realize that drinks full of empty calories are not good for them. That is why more and more Americans are opting to drink less soda every year.”

The universities and scientists who are working for Coca Cola defend their actions to the New York Times this way:

The group’s president, James O. Hill, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and President of the Global Energy Balance Network, said Coke had registered the group’s website because the network’s members did not know how.

“They’re not running the show,” he said. “We’re running the show.”

Dr. Steven Blair, an exercise scientist at the University of South Carolina told the Times that Coke had no control over its work or message and that they saw no problem with the company’s support because they had been transparent about it.

“As soon as we discovered that we didn’t have not only Coca-Cola but other funding sources on the website, we put it on there,” Dr. Blair said. “Does that make us totally corrupt in everything we do?”

Dr. Gregory Hand, now the Dean of the School of Public Health at West Virginia University had this to say:

“As long as everybody is disclosing their potential conflicts and they’re being managed appropriately, that’s the best that you can do. It makes perfect sense that companies would want the best science that they can get.”

But this market based definition of academic freedom, that universities can sell their services to whoever is willing to pay, ignores several key questions. What are the real world consequences of selling science and scientists’ time to organizations whose primary products are associated with the most serious epidemics of the 21st century?   And what is the damage to universities, scientists and the public health enterprise if academics are seen as soldiers of fortune, selling their skills and expertise to the highest bidder?

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