- Nonprofit consumer education group U.S. Right to Know obtained email correspondence that allegedly sheds light on how a Coca-Cola advocate and a director for the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may have collaborated to approach World Health Organization officials about issues impacting the soda industry.
- The emails were reportedly between Dr. Barbara Bowman, director of the CDC's Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention, and Alex Malaspina, a former scientific and regulatory affairs head for Coca-Cola and founder of International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), which has received funding from the food and beverage industry.
- The nonprofit's report alleges that Bowman helped the beverage industry "cultivate political sway with the World Health Organization," by offering advice and leads for contacts. Those leads could enable Malaspina to speak with WHO about considering global lifestyle changes as a potential cause of rising obesity rates instead of just sugary products, the report said.
CDC spokeswoman Kathy Harben told Right to Know that the emails do not necessarily suggest a conflict or problem, saying, "It is not unusual for CDC to be in touch with people on all sides of an issue."
However, Marion Nestle, author of the book "Soda Politics" and a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, told the nonprofit, "These emails suggest that ILSI, Coca-Cola, and researchers funded by Coca-Cola have an 'in' with a prominent CDC official ...This appearance of conflict of interest is precisely why policies for engagement with industry are needed for federal officials."
The link between ILSI and soda companies first came to light earlier this year. News emerged that Coca-Cola and PepsiCo were members of ILSI Europe, which had provided funding for a recent study that claimed diet soda could be better than water at helping consumers lose weight.
Public health advocates, independent researchers, and consumers continue to question industry-funded research, including studies that soda companies like Coca-Cola have backed. Questions arise particularly if the studies make nutrition claims related to a product or ingredient tied to the company or organization that provided funding. Artificial sweetener brand Splenda recently demonstrated that brands could still take advantage of nutrition research without actually funding it, which helps removes some of the perception of bias or skewed results.
But these emails allege that the soda industry could be working with a national public health official to impact national or global politics, such as soda taxes and recommended limits on sugary beverage consumption. The question is how much the content of these emails differs from the lobbying activities for which soda companies and other industry members have spent millions of dollars in recent years. Lobbying dollars have gone to fight legislation and regulations regarding issues like federal dietary guidelines, GMO labeling, and soda taxes.
The industry has struggled with 11 years of declining soda sales volumes, and Philadelphia recently became the first major city to pass a soda tax. San Francisco and several other cities have soda taxes on upcoming ballots, and San Francisco may also be the first U.S. city to mandate warning labels on sugary drink advertisements, pending an appellate review.