Many consumers know to be wary of industry-sponsored scientific research (toxic sludge is not, in fact, good for you). Industries with controversial product lines often cherry-pick friendly scientists—and pay them handsomely—to dredge up data that reflects well on the product. For instance, in the ‘60s, the sugar industry funded a sketchy study that indicated fat—not sweets—was the real public health scourge (echoes of the Eat Mor Chikin ad campaign).
It gets stickier, however, when those studies are used as levers to affect public policy. The Coca Cola company, long a funder of this kind of dubious research (e.g., diet soda is better than water!), was just found to be pushing their results on the federal government. A public records request from U.S. Right to Know revealed a cache of emails between Coke reps, scientists, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
To be clear, there is no blatant smoking gun to leave you aghast here, no admission that the CDC created a “Soda Makes You Smarter!” health campaign at Coke’s suggestion. What the emails do reveal is a very cozy relationship between federal officials and industry employees, and repeated attempts for the huge corporation to curry federal favor.
“Why is Coke talking to CDC at all? Why is there any line of communication?” asked pediatric endocrinologist Robert Lustig in an interview with Forbes. Lustig, who researches the effects of sugar consumption at the University of California, San Francisco, added, “The contact is completely inappropriate and they’re obviously trying to use it to exert influence on a government agency.”
For instance, there’s an email from former CDC official Barbara Bowman, thanking Coke executive Alex Malaspina for a nice night out: “What a lovely time we had on Saturday nights [sic], many thanks, Alex, for your hospitality.” The emails also reveal Malaspina trying to spin government analysis in his employer’s favor; when a group of scientists advise the CDC to recommend lower consumption of sugar, meat, and salt, he reaches out to find scientists who will “counteract” these recommendations.
These murky ties may warrant further scrutiny, in light of Trump’s new pick to head the CDC. Dr. Barbara Fitzgerald, Georgia’s public health commissioner, was named CDC director on Friday, a choice that some observers found refreshingly moderate. A little digging, however, showed that Fitzgerald not only has touted some anti-aging pseudoscience over the course of her career—she also has strong ties to Coca Cola.
Coke, like the CDC, is headquartered in Atlanta. Fitzgerald’s state agency received a million dollars from the company to fund a program called Georgia SHAPE, which aims to tackle childhood obesity. Forbes notes that a) Fitzgerald heaped praise on the Coca Cola corporation, and b) for all its advice to young people, SHAPE makes no mention anywhere of avoiding sugary foods.
The company’s attempts to cast doubt on the link between obesity and sugary beverages have been well-documented for years. The newly released emails, where Coke-funded obesity studies are foisted on the CDC, explicitly showcase that goal. Eat less sugar to be healthier? That’s just “not based on science,” writes Malaspina. Well, that’s news to us.