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April 2018 (Vol. 3 Issue 2)

How Coca-Cola 'bought science' to safeguard its profits
About the author: 
Bryan Hubbard

How Coca-Cola 'bought science' to safeguard its profits image

Health campaigners have uncovered the full extent of Coca-Cola's dirty tricks campaign to deflect concerns about its products contributing to the obesity epidemic.

It created and entirely funded an 'independent and scientific' group, the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN), which targeted key people with its message that obesity was the result of a lack of exercise or 'energy balance'.

It funded scientists and academics to head up the organisation, including Simon Singh's Sense About Science, which was handed $25,000. In return, they would endeavour to change the public debate about obesity and deflect attention away from its sugary drinks.

The US organisation, Right To Know, has discovered that Coca-Cola targeted policy-makers, healthcare professionals, health journalists and bloggers in a cynical attempt to protect profits. It also created a website and social media platforms to spread the message and looked to establish partnerships with global groups that might be sympathetic to the 'energy balance' idea, such as the American Society for Nutrition.

GEBN was portrayed as 'a credible honest broker' although in private communications Coca-Cola described it as "a weapon" to change the conversation and adopt tactics that would change policy and improve profits. The scientists who were recruited played their part, and one went on record to state there was "no compelling evidence" that fast food and sugary drinks contributed to obesity when the very reverse was true.

GEBN was closed down in 2015, and the University of Colorado School of Medicine handed back a $1m grant from Coca-Cola to help set up the organisation. It is not known whether Sense About Science returned its pay-out.

Shortly before GEBN was disbanded, the Harvard school of public health had accused it and its supporters of spreading "scientific nonsense".

Right To Know likened the creation of GEBN to the tobacco industry's Merchants of Doubt campaign, which questioned the idea that second-hand smoke could contribute to disease.


References

(Source: Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 2018; 0: 1-3; doi: 10.1136/jech-2017-210375)

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