A few months ago, we reported on how Coca-Cola was responding to criticism of its research funding. Basically, the company had come under fire for bankrolling studies that showed that obesity was mainly caused by sedentary lifestyle choices and not by the amount of calories a person consumed.
The company even went so far as to launch a website to explain its research funding (i.e. where it was spending its money and how much). Coca-cola defended its funding of groups like the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN), saying that “our engagement and financial support of these well-respected experts, institutions and organizations were made with the best of intentions – to inform our business, support our local communities and support solutions to the public health issues facing people across the United States and around the world.”
Well, it seems that this patronage may not have been so well-intentioned after all. Emails uncovered by the Associated Press (AP) appear to show that the research done by GEBN was heavily influenced by its relationship with Coca-Cola.
The emails that the AP exposed show correspondence between James Hill, GEBN president and a Colorado med school professor, and Rhona Applebaum, the chief health and science officer for Coca-Cola. John Peters, another leader at GEBN, is also included in some of the emails.
The emails show that Coca-Cola funded GEBN research so that they could stress how important diet and exercise are – but they also wanted the blame shifted off of their company. In October of 2012, Hill received an email from Applebaum saying that they would be sending a “stimulus package” to GEBN. She says those working on the project will need to be open about collaboration with private industry and that this collaboration is “non-negotiable.”
In November of 2012, Applebaum emailed Hill and Peters about questions the media had been asking about the Coke-funded study. She offers the two GEBN leaders media training as well, stating that “all our folks receive it.”
In July of 2014, Applebaum compares the GEBN research to a political campaign. “We will develop, deploy and evolve a powerful and multi-facted strategy to counter radical organizations and their proponents,” she said. She later states that the company's hope was to make GEBN “the place the media goes to for comment on any obesity issue.”
Emails were sent back and forth between Applebaum, Hill, and Peters well into 2015. A description of each can be found here.
Importance of impartiality
This level of involvement with GEBN shows that Coca-cola was much more involved in the group's research than simply sending them money. It was not just a one-way street either; GEBN showed that it supported Coca-cola as well.
“It is not fair that Coca-Cola is signaled out as the #1 villain in the obesity world, but that is the situation and makes this your issue whether you like it or not . . . I want to help your company avoid the image of being a problem in peoples' lives and back to a being a company that brings important and fun things to them,” wrote Hill in an email to a Coke executive.
A basic tenet of scientific rsearch is that it should remain impartial and that finds should not be “influenced by particular perspectives, value commitments, community bias or personal interests,” as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it.