Coca-Cola’s most recent round of funding disclosures shows the company has dramatically cut back on its monetary contributions to health and fitness-related endeavors. It cut its funding for these wellness-related partnerships to less than a quarter of its previous rate and is closing its more obvious propaganda outlets. Unfortunately, Coke is still firmly committed to slightly more disguised means of health propaganda, including the International Life Sciences Institute.
The soda giant has released a list of the North American health and scientific endeavors it funds every six months. The most recent one occurred March 24. Coca-Cola’s “Transparency” initiative began in late 2015 after the New York Times exposed its efforts to shift the blame for obesity from nutrition to inactivity via the now defunct Global Energy Balance Network.
In fact, the Coca-Cola “Transparency” archives have been anything but transparent. The archives have failed to include payments to the National Physical Activity Plan and made unexplained and seemingly inexplicable changes to past payments. One might also doubt the company’s commitment to financial disclosure given its involvement in the money laundering scheme that resulted in the “largest campaign finance penalty” in U.S. history.
The most recent round of “Transparency” disclosure covers the second half of 2016. During this period, Coke only paid out $2.9 million. This is 23.6 percent of Coke’s previous rate of “science” funding. From 2010 through June 31, 2016, Coke doled out $135.4 million, averaging $24.6 million per year.
The soda company explains,
“This decline is due in part to the application of new guiding principles at our company for how we will provide financial support for Well-Being Scientific Research.”
Along with the new list of payments for March 24, Coca-Cola also unveiled these new “Guiding Principles for Well-Being Scientific Research and Third Party Engagement.”
First, Coke claims it is no longer fully covering any research:
“The company (including its Foundations and Coca-Cola bottling entities) will not, either directly or through a third party (such as a trade association) provide all of the funding for well-being scientific research. We will instead provide financial support for such research only if a non-Coca-Cola entity bears at least 50% of the research costs. It also will not pay third parties any compensation or incentives, or reimburse their travel costs, to increase awareness of well-being scientific research. In addition, it will not be the sole provider of funding for programs that engage the health professional community.”
Second, the company is shuttering its more blatant propaganda outlets:
“The company will sunset any funding of company-owned or branded health and wellness platforms that promote well-being. It will also sunset and discontinue support for the Beverage Institute of Health & Wellness as well as its support for Active Healthy Living programs globally.”
These new principles coincide with a larger change in the company, as James Quincey prepares to replace Muhtar Kent as CEO on May 1.
The Beverage Institute’s closure may be bad news for the American College of Sports Medicine. Coca-Cola employed its “Beverage Institute” to promote its “Exercise is Medicine” partnership with ACSM, offering seminars to dietitians and other health professionals. This Coke-ACSM partnership aimed to incorporate fitness trainers into health care on the condition that they refrain from giving specific nutritional advice.
It’s interesting to see what partnerships are not listed on Coca-Cola’s latest round of disclosures. For instance, Coke claims not to have sent money to the ACSM since 2015. (After CrossFit drew attention to the Coca-Cola Exercise is Medicine scheme, ACSM announced the end of Coke’s “funding relationship with ACSM and the EIM Global Center.”)
As for Coke’s government penetration, Coke has not apparently funded the CDC or NIH Foundations since 2012 and 2014, respectively. This may not mean a firm end for the Coca-Cola-CDC-NIH nexus, however. Neither the CDC nor NIH Foundations agreed to disavow future soda industry funding when CrossFit Founder Greg Glassman sent them letters asking them to do so last year.
Nor did Coke fund the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, American College of Cardiology, American Heart Association, Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, American Diabetes Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2016. Some of these partnerships may be terminated, while others may persist. For example, Greg Glassman also sent a letter to the American Heart Association last year, and they refused to disavow future soda industry funding. Perhaps the AHA wished to move away from Coca-Cola without garnering too much attention. Or perhaps Coca-Cola is continuing to influence the organization through one of its famously non-transparent funding channels.
Coke Influence Goes Underground
The age of #sodascience and #Cokewhores is far from over. Close examination of its 2016 partnerships reveals that Coke has merely shifted its focus to more clandestine means of influence.
For example, Coke paid the International Life Science Institute’s North American branch $396,689 in 2016 alone. ILSI has branches all over the world, so this is far from the full extent of Coca-Cola’s ILSI funding in 2016.
Earlier this year we exposed ILSI’s ties to the effort to silence Dr. Tim Noakes in South Africa. Following our report, the South African government launched an investigation into Ali Dhansay, the former ILSI South Africa president who served as expert witness against Noakes. The government also closed Dhansay’s research unit and disavowed any relationship to Dhansay’s testimony against Noakes. This was only the latest link in a long chain of ignominious ILSI behavior, including lobbying the World Health Organization on behalf of tobacco companies. And ILSI-funded sugar researchers have been caught misrepresenting the strong influence ILSI officials have on their research.
In 2016, Coke also paid $141,000 to the International Food Information Council and $249,025 to the Calorie Control Council, which like ILSI are soda and junk food proxy groups.
The contrast between the Beverage Institute and these more clandestine organizations demonstrates a strategic shift for Coca-Cola. The Beverage Institute was explicitly a Coca-Cola founded and branded endeavor.
In contrast, ILSI’s website does not disclose that Coca-Cola Senior Vice President Alex Malaspina founded the institute. Nor does ILSI list Coca-Cola on its Leadership and Financial Support page. Only by clicking through to ILSI’s “2015 Member and Supporting Companies” page will a visitor discover the Coca-Cola funding behind ILSI.
By dropping the Beverage Institute and funding more disguised proxy groups like ILSI, Coca-Cola is actually becoming less transparent, not more.
Glasnost and Perestroika under James Quincey?
For students of Soviet history, incoming CEO James Quincey may look like Gorbachev to Muhtar Kent’s Brezhnev. Under Gorbachev’s leadership in the 1980s, the Soviet Union announced a new commitment to “glasnost” and “perestroika,” Russian words for “openness” and “restructuring.” Of course, no amount of professed commitment to transparency could hide the Soviet Union’s true nature as a brutal authoritarian state responsible for killing millions.
Examining Coca-Cola’s own efforts towards “glasnost” and “perestroika,” it’s clear the company still wants to sell toxic beverages and manipulate science and policy. It just does not want to catch flack for doing so.
During most of the Kent years, Coca-Cola was a loud and proud promoter of sugary drinks and industry-funded research. Quincey’s strategy is more subtle. If this transitional period is any indication, Quincey’s Coca-Cola will continue to market and sell billions of dollars worth of toxic beverages while using some of that revenue to muddy the science on sugar’s toxicity. All the while, Coke will portray itself as supportive of public health efforts to limit soda consumption, and a principled supporter of legitimate and transparent scientific research.
Maybe the trick will work this time.