Coca-Cola has pledged to make its health organization funding transparent, but it has not yet followed through on its promise. The soda company appears to have failed to reveal payments it made to the National Physical Activity Plan around 2012. This calls into question whether Coca-Cola is truly committed to transparency. Furthermore, it raises the question: why did the National Physical Activity Plan and its organizer, the ACSM, refrain from correcting Coca-Cola’s database?
Coca-Cola’s “Transparency” database alleges only two donations to the NPAP in the 2010-2015 period: a 2014 payment of $15,000 to “support conference,” and another in 2015 of the same amount for the same objective. Here are the two entries:
Yet elsewhere, Coca-Cola has contradicted its own database. A 2012 Coca-Cola article stated, “we are sponsors of the National Physical Activity Plan” (We saved this article for posterity, but Coca-Cola has deleted it and other evidence from its website).
If Coca-Cola was a sponsor of the NPAP in 2012, why does the Transparency database only list payments in 2014 and 2015? Said another way, why does the Transparency database not disclose the 2012-era sponsorship payments that Coca-Cola itself admitted to? Coca-Cola’s database has suffered from many similar errors and discrepancies before, as detailed on this blog.
The NPAP and Coca-Cola have a powerful incentive to minimize the apparent size of their partnership. The NPAP looks very similar to two terminated partnerships between the American College of Sports Medicine officials and Coca-Cola: the Global Energy Balance Network and Exercise is Medicine. Past ACSM president Steven Blair has had his hands in all three, for example. Blair once doubted whether nutrition had anything to do with obesity, then retracted his statement and admitted he did a “disservice” to his colleagues. Coke has paid Blair over $5 million for “research” just over the past five years.
Like the Global Energy Balance Network and Exercise is Medicine, the NPAP focuses on preventing chronic disease with physical activity, not nutrition, so there’s good reason to suspect that the NPAP may experience the same fate as the other partnerships between Coke and ACSM officials. First CrossFit exposed Coke’s partnerships with GEBN and EIM. (Dr. Yoni Freedhoff also covered EIM as a Big Soda smokescreen). Then the New York Times and other news outlets revealed how Coke used GEBN and EIM to turn attention away from soda and soda regulation. Finally, under public pressure, Coke ended its partnerships with both GEBN and EIM. GEBN did not survive the end of its Coke partnership, but EIM has continued to stumble on so far. ACSM manages EIM, and ACSM’s Big Soda connection continues through Pepsico.
Only time will tell if the NPAP will go the way of the GEBN. Past ACSM president Russell Pate serves as chairman. Pate’s Coca-Cola ties are extensive. He is a professor at the University of South Carolina’s Arnold School of Public Health, which is yet another health institution funded by Coca-Cola. And Coke has referred reporters to Pate, who focused on using physical activity, not nutrition, to address obesity. NPAP’s Secretary/Treasurer is Jim Whitehead, longtime CEO of the ACSM.
A search for “Coca-Cola” on NPAP’s website yields a strange result. For example, former Coke Chief Scientific and Regulator Officer Rhona Applebaum appears often in the search results. Yet none of the Coca-Cola search results are available to view once you click on the links. Has the NPAP, like Coca-Cola, attempted to purge its website of evidence of the long-term NPAP-Coca-Cola partnership?
One alarming difference between NPAP and its predecessors is that it has succeeded in getting the US Federal Government to go along with its plan. The Centers for Disease Control and US Department of Agriculture are listed as “Federal Partners.” Jacqueline Epping, a lead health scientist at the CDC, serves as a “Federal Liaison” for the NPAP. Again, we must wonder why the US Federal Government has partnered with a Big Soda proxy. Coca-Cola’s payments to the CDC Foundation suggest a possible answer.
The NPAP seeks to direct greater government funding and attention to physical activity. For example, it is hoping to set up a CDC “Office of Physical Activity and Health” and “an Office within the NIH Office of the Director, to be responsible for coordinating and monitoring research funding for physical activity across all NIH Institutes,” among many other initiatives. While exercise surely is beneficial for health, it is concerning that federal agencies would put their weight behind a Big Soda-backed initiative among all the possible alternatives.
Coca-Cola checked with its partners before it published its database to let them know what was coming. This means that the NPAP received fair warning of Coca-Cola’s entries and must be aware of them. Furthermore, the NPAP must know that Coca-Cola sponsored it prior to 2014. Why, then, has the NPAP failed to inform Coca-Cola that payments are missing from its “Transparency” database?
We hope that Coca-Cola will move quickly to correct this apparent error in their database. Of course, Coca-Cola would avoid having to correct their incorrect public admissions of funding if they simply got out of health and fitness.