The Grapevine

Anti-Obesity Group Funded By Coca-Cola Disbands Amid Coke's Attempt To Counter 'Public Health Extremists'

coca cola
A Coca-Cola-funded anti-obesity group is dismantling after information about its ties to the company became public. CC BY-NC 2.0

By now, it’s common knowledge that consuming large amounts of Coca-Cola — or any type of sugary soda — isn’t good for your health. But that isn’t stopping behemoth soda companies from fighting the public health officials who are calling for people to drink less soda.

An anti-obesity nonprofit funded by Coca-Cola, known as the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN), is one example of how Coca-Cola is attempting to mold public perception about the health repercussions of soda. Though the GEBN claimed it wasn’t influenced by the $1.5 million it received from Coke, new information shows otherwise.

On its website, the nonprofit notes that “GEBN is discontinuing operations due to resource limitations.” But e-mails obtained by the AP show that GEBN was largely influenced and controlled by Coca-Cola; Coke had helped choose the group’s leaders, change its mission statement, and push for particular content on its website.

Coke was likely trying to push its agenda under an anti-obesity research cover. In the past, Coke has attempted to spearhead research projects and studies that prove drinking soda can be healthy if people put more of a focus on physical activity. The company’s leading scientist left after allegations that many of their studies tried to play down the role of soda in obesity.

The e-mails showed that Coke executives had circulated a proposal for the anti-obesity group, which would involve “quickly establish[ing] itself as the place the media goes to for comment on any obesity issue.” The plan also noted that the group would spearhead a political-style campaign to offset the anti-soda information out there, or the “shrill rhetoric” of “public health extremists.”

Further e-mails about the proposal wrote that the group should aim to “inject sanity and reason” into the public perception of obesity, and “akin to a political campaign, we will develop, deploy and evolve a powerful and multi-faceted strategy to counter radical organizations and their proponents.”

All in all, it sounds quite similar to the ad campaigns rolled out by tobacco companies in the 1950’s and 60’s to counter all the medical evidence coming out about the hazards of cigarettes.

According to the AP, it also appeared that Coke officials aimed to keep control over the group by noting the group’s leaders would have to remain open about all of its doings and collaborations. “That is non-negotiable,” Rhona Applebaum, former chief health and science officer who had originally began the relationship with the group, reportedly wrote. And it was because the group wasn’t “transparent” enough with Coke that it was ultimately dismantled, Coke CEO Muhtar Kent said in a statement.

On its website, GEBN wrote that it “encourage[s] members to continue pursuing the mission to ‘connect and engage multi-disciplinary scientists and other experts around the globe dedicated to applying and advancing the science of energy balance to achieve healthier living.”

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