- Emails exchanged between Coca-Cola employees and officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2011 to 2015 show the company trying to influence the World Health Organization to push exercise instead of diet to solve obesity, according to a new report published Tuesday in the journal The Milbank Quarterly.
The emails were acquired through Freedom of Information Act requests made in 2016 and 2017.
Coca-Cola said in a statement emailed to Food Dive that these newly released emailed pre-date their commitment in 2015 to disclose funding for scientific research and partnerships publicly every six months. "Over the past four years, we've listened and learned from the public health community, our customers, associates and our consumers to understand the most appropriate role we can play to support the fight against obesity in a way that is credible, transparent, and beneficial for everyone," the company said.
While the latest report reveals greater details about Coca-Cola's communications, this isn't the first time the soda industry's relationship with public health agencies have been called into question. For years, studies have found evidence that the food and beverage industry has pressured officials to gain influence over regulation.
The report outlines continued conversation between Barbara Bowman, then director of the CDC's Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention, and Alex Malaspina, a former Coca-Cola senior vice president of external affairs. At the time these emails, the World Health Organization's director general had said the marketing of sugary soft drinks was a top contributor to increasing obesity across the globe. In an email chain referencing WHO's call for more regulation on sugary drinks, Malaspina asked "any ideas how we can have a conversation with WHO?” and later claimed "the threat to our business is serious."
Bowman left the agency in 2017 as a result of these emails. Coke has since made a bigger commitment to transparency on its website, announcing in 2015 it would track its financial partnerships and donations and update them every six months.
For the five-year period of these emails, Coca Cola's transparency site reports that the company donated more than $1 million to the CDC Foundation. Its website, however, might not be fully accurate. The report showed that while the foundation's records noted additional gifts from Coca-Cola in 2016 and 2017, they do not appear on the site. The discrepancy could call into question how effective these new transparency measures may be.
This issue is not new to Coca-Cola. The company has previously worked with scientists in the U.S. and started a nonprofit called the Global Energy Balance Network to promote a message that exercise could be a solution to obesity. The company disbanded it in 2015, and ever since, the U.S. and Europe have been pushing healthier eating by limiting soda and unhealthy snacks in the fight against obesity. Despite those efforts, a recent study showed that Americans still prefer exercise over healthy eating.
But it's not just Coca-Cola. Big CPG companies have also tried to influence policy in other countries. A report published in the BMJ and Journal of Public Health Policy earlier this month found that American food companies — including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé and McDonald's — have been funding a group to shape China's obesity policy to focus on exercise and not diet. China's health initiatives emphasize fitness and don't mention reducing the consumption of sugary drinks and processed foods, which has helped sales for these U.S. brands.
As more soda taxes target the sugary drink market across the U.S. and reports continue to show that big food companies aren't doing enough to help consumers eat healthy, the onus is now on companies to decide their next steps. For Coca-Cola, its transparency measures could help the company's reputation in the face of these new emails, but consumers will likely continue to question the company's ties to policy.
"Today our focus is on reducing sugar in our drinks and promoting more no- and low-sugar options as we work to support the World Health Organization’s recommendation that people limit added sugars to 10% of their daily caloric intake," Coca-Cola said in its emailed statement to Food Dive.