How Soda Companies Influence Policy Through Ties With Public Health Organizations

soda company agreement

Story at-a-glance -

  • Sweetened beverages have been identified as a major contributor to the obesity and diabetes epidemics around the world. To stem the sale of sugary drinks, WHO is now urging countries to impose a stiff tax on them
  • For decades, the links between sugar and poor health outcomes have been buried, and nutritional science has been misdirected on purpose — to shield industry interests, without regard for public health
  • DC Leaks recently disseminated hacked correspondence revealing just how intimate of a relationship Coca-Cola has with presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s camp

By Dr. Mercola

Sweetened beverages have been identified as a major contributor to the obesity and diabetes epidemics around the world, and in light of the scientific evidence, many public health organizations are now starting to take a stand against added sugars.

Big Soda recognizes the power behind recommendations from the American Heart Association (AHA), the American Diabetes Association (ADA), the World Health Organization (WHO) and others.

And they've been surreptitiously donating millions of dollars to public health organizations with the intent of influencing their recommendations.

Hacked emails also reveal just how far up the ladder of power the soda industry is able to reach in the U.S. As it turns out, their influence goes to the very top of the political hierarchy.

Soda — A Major Contributor to Declining Public Health

One 12-ounce can of regular soda has about 33 grams of sugar (8 1/4 teaspoons) and 36 grams of net carbohydrates. This is far more sugar than your body can safely handle, and since most people guzzle soda as a primary beverage rather than water, it's no surprise that obesity has become such a health crisis of epic proportions.

Over the past decades, the number of sodas and amount of added sugar Americans consume have risen precipitously, contributing to the obesity epidemic1,2 that now costs the U.S. health care system $1 trillion each year.3

In my view, sugar (particularly processed fructose) is one of the most damaging calories that you can eat, and it's abundant in most processed foods, including baby formula!

Considering the facts that sugar is as addictive as cocaine4 and has downright toxic effects on your body when consumed in excess,5 it's no wonder so many children are now struggling with obesity and related diseases, including type 2 diabetes and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). What else could you possibly expect when you're fed mostly sugar from day one?

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Reducing the number of sugary drinks and the amount of junk food you eat in a day may help to reduce your potential risk for metabolic disease, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke and obesity. However, the sugar and soda industries are far more concerned with their bottom line than they are with your health.

Nearly Six Decades of Scientific Corruption Unearthed

For decades, the links between sugar and poor health outcomes have been buried, and nutritional science has been misdirected on purpose — to shield industry interests, without regard for public health.

For example, according to an historical analysis6 of internal industry documents, the link between sugar and coronary heart disease emerged in the 1950s but was buried by the sugar industry, which launched its own research aimed at shifting the blame toward dietary fats. As noted by the authors:

"Early warning signals of the coronary heart disease (CHD) risk of sugar (sucrose) emerged in the 1950s.

We examined Sugar Research Foundation (SRF) internal documents, historical reports and statements relevant to early debates about the dietary causes of CHD and assembled findings chronologically into a narrative case study …

[O]ur findings suggest the industry sponsored a research program in the 1960s and 1970s that successfully cast doubt about the hazards of sucrose while promoting fat as the dietary culprit in CHD.

Policymaking committees should consider giving less weight to food industry–funded studies and include mechanistic and animal studies as well as studies appraising the effect of added sugars on multiple CHD biomarkers and disease development."

Last year, Coca-Cola Company was also outed for secretly funding and supporting the Global Energy Balance Network, a nonprofit front group that promoted exercise as the solution to obesity while significantly downplaying the role of diet and sugary beverages in the weight loss equation.7

WHO Recommends Taxing Sugary Drinks to Stem Global Obesity Epidemic

WHO now recognizes obesity as a worldwide epidemic. It also recognizes the contribution of sugary beverages toward the growth of this problem. Across the world:8,9

  • More than 39 percent of adults are overweight
  • 11 percent of men and 15 percent of women are obese
  • 42 million children under the age of 5 are either overweight or obese10 (an increase of 11 million in the past 15 years)
  • Diabetes rates have risen by 400 percent, from 108 million in 1980 to 422 million in 2014, resulting in 1.5 million deaths in 2012 alone
  • Research suggests sugary beverages alone are to blame for about 183,000 deaths worldwide each year, including 133,000 diabetes deaths and 44,000 heart disease deaths

In an effort to stem the sale of soda and other sugar laden drinks, WHO is now urging countries to impose a tax on these beverages.11 The tax is intended to raise the price of sugary beverages by 20 percent, and hopefully curtail sales by as much.

In response to the WHO report, the International Council of Beverages Associations (ICBA) called taxing sugary drinks "discriminatory," adding that the notion that taxing such beverages might improve public health has never been proven.12

However, in Mexico, where a 10 percent tax on sugary beverages was enacted as of January 1, 2014, sales of such beverages shrunk by 12 percent in one year.13

Berkley, California, passed the first soda tax in the U.S. in 2014, and consumption in some neighborhoods dropped by as much as 21 percent in less than two years.14,15 Meanwhile, San Francisco, where the soda tax was defeated in the ballots, saw a 4 percent increase in soda consumption in that same span of time.16

Big Soda Receives Subsidies to Further Reach Into Developing Nations

Although obesity rates began rising in rich countries several decades ago, the number of obese people in middle income countries is now following suit, thanks to the infiltration of processed foods and sodas. To offset declining sales in richer nations where people are slowly getting savvier about the dangers of soda, companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi have shifted their focus to developing countries.

For example, Coca-Cola's projected investment in Mexico between 2010 and 2020 is $12.4 billion. During that same time frame, they're also investing $17 billion to further soda sales on the African continent. Crazy as it may seem, Coca-Cola is even receiving subsidies to facilitate its reach into Africa and Asia!17

No wonder Coca-Cola is so worried about a global soda tax. It might jinx the company's efforts to get a firm hold in these new markets, not to mention the dampening effect it will have on already established markets like the U.S. and Europe.

How Coca-Cola and Pepsi Undermine Public Health Measures

Not surprisingly, since a tax levied against their product would reduce sales — and significantly so if countries around the world adopt the tax strategy — Big Soda and the American Beverage Association are fighting tooth and nail to prevent such a measure.

Working on a two-pronged approach to protect profits, soda companies are also trying to influence and manipulate public perception of their product. What's truly disturbing is the level of political support these companies are receiving. To counteract this undue influence, it is imperative that people understand who the players are, and the rules of their playbook.

For starters, public health researchers warn that the beverage industry has created very deep financial ties to the public health community over the past five years, and that this was strategically done to silence critics and gain allies in the fight against regulations.18,19,20,21

A recent study looking into the sponsorship activities of soda companies suggests the reason for soda companies' philanthropic interest in health organizations has little to do with actually supporting measures that would improve public health, and everything to do with influencing such organizations to further the industry's own agenda:22

"From 2011 to 2015, the Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo were found to sponsor a total of 96 national health organizations, including many medical and public health institutions whose specific missions include fighting the obesity epidemic. During the study period, these two soda companies lobbied against 29 public health bills intended to reduce soda consumption or improve nutrition …

These companies lobbied against public health intervention in 97 percent of cases, calling into question a sincere commitment to improving the public's health. By accepting funding from these companies, health organizations are inadvertently participating in their marketing plans."

What Do Coca-Cola and Pepsi Really Stand For?

According to study co-author Daniel Aaron, a student at Boston University's medical school, there can be little doubt that Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo are purposely trying to undermine public health measures in order to protect profits.

"We wanted to look at what these companies really stand for. And it looks like they are not helping public health at all — in fact they're opposing it almost across the board, which calls these sponsorships into question," Aaron told The New York Times.23

Many Health Organizations Compromise Public Health to Satisfy Sponsors

Indeed, the researchers discovered a number of instances where influential public health organizations either turned against a soda tax initiative or remained silent on the matter after receiving an industry donation. Here are just a few examples:

Save the Children, a nonprofit group that provides health education programs for children, had previously supported soda tax campaigns in several states but suddenly stopped in 2010 after receiving a $5 million grant from Pepsi.

In 2012, when New York proposed a ban on supersized sodas, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics cited "conflicting research" as the reason for not supporting the measure. That same year, the Academy had received $525,000 from Coca-Cola. The following year, Coke gave them another $350,000.

As recently as this month, dietitians listed as having received consulting fees from Coca-Cola participated in a Twitter campaign aimed at defeating the proposed soda tax in Oakland, California.24

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the mission of which is to fight for equality for minorities, made the surprising decision to oppose soda tax initiatives even though black and Hispanic communities have disproportionally high rates of obesity and related health problems.

The Hispanic Federation has also chosen not to support soda tax initiatives. The reason for their lenience becomes clearer in light of the fact that both of these organizations have received large donations from Coca-Cola. NAACP received more than $1 million between 2010 and 2015, and the Hispanic Federation received $600,000 between 2012 and 2015.

Sponsorship Is a Potent Marketing Tool

While many companies try to downplay the influence their sponsorships may have on any given organization, let's be clear. Sponsorship is considered a marketing tool by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and marketing by private corporations has one primary end goal, and that is to increase profits. As noted by Aaron:25

"I want people to know that a lot of important health organizations shaping health in the United States are receiving money from Coca-Cola and Pepsi. That money, while it may seem beneficent, is more geared toward marketing. I want people to understand how problematic that is. Health organizations are becoming a marketing tool."

PepsiCo Reneges on Its Hard-Won Soda Brand Image

To avert some of the criticism, PepsiCo is trying a different tack, telling CBS News:26

"What is completely lost, or conveniently ignored, in this study is the fact that PepsiCo is incorrectly painted as a 'soda company,' when only a quarter of our global revenue comes from carbonated soft drinks. As one of the largest food and beverage companies in the world, we provide consumers around the world with delicious, affordable, convenient and complementary foods and beverages from healthy eats to treats.

We believe that obesity is a complex, multifaceted issue and that our company has an important role to play in addressing it — which includes engaging with public health organizations and responding to consumers' demand for healthier products."

The problem with this "defense" is that whether we're talking about sweetened beverages or the grain-based processed foods and snacks Pepsi sells,27 they all (with few if any exceptions) contribute to obesity, including zero-and low-calorie beverages and snacks. In fact, research has clearly established that artificial sweeteners contribute to weight gain and worsen diabetes to a greater degree than regular sugar.28,29

It is the industry's OWN research that claims processed foods, sweetened beverages and artificial sweeteners are benign. Moreover, it's disingenuous at best to claim that the brand known as Pepsi should not be "painted as a soda company." It's one of the most widely recognizable soda brands in the world, and they've spent vast amounts of money to create that brand awareness.

Scientist Loyal to Coca-Cola Hired by Disney to Research Its Kids' Meals

Walt Disney World recently tried to copy the sugar and soda industries' template but ended up running for cover when, last year, the Global Energy Balance Network was outed as a Coca-Cola funded front group aimed at deceiving the public about nutrition.

As it turns out, Disney had hired James Hill, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Colorado medical school and the president of the Global Energy Balance Network, to conduct a study of children's meals served at Disney World.30 As reported by STAT News back in April:31

"The Walt Disney Company urged an academic journal to withdraw a nutritional study of children's meals at Disney World last fall — a study it had funded — amid a public backlash over corporate involvement in scientific research … Disney … feared being publicly associated with one of its main authors, James Hill[,PH.D.] … [whose] work last summer drew an outcry among scientists who felt his project, funded by Coca-Cola, played down the impact of sugary drinks in obesity …

Emails obtained by STAT show that Disney asked Hill and a coauthor to withdraw the meal study — a step that many researchers would consider a breach of ethics. In one email, Hill told Disney an editor at the journal had advised him that 'we risk some real negative PR if anyone found out that Disney was even trying to influence publication.'

The company relented, but was later offered an opportunity by the authors to tailor the press release about the study's findings. That, too, was unusual. The emails … open a rare window on the back-and-forth between researchers and a corporate sponsor. They also mark what experts described as an unusual degree of corporate involvement in an academic study.

'The authors should follow the science, and Disney should not be influencing either how they do the study, how they report the study, or whether they report the study,' said George Annas, a Boston University professor of law and medicine …"

Coca-Cola's Intimate Ties to Hillary Clinton

DC Leaks recently disseminated a hoard of hacked correspondence, and in that midst is evidence showing just how intimate of a relationship Coca-Cola has with presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's camp. As reported by Politico,32 earlier this year Clinton endorsed Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney's proposal for a soda tax to help pay for universal preschool. Her public endorsement sent Coca-Cola into damage control mode, and for that, they turned to two key Clinton representatives:

"Coca-Cola executive Clyde Tuggle emailed to two Clinton associates, Capricia Marshall and Sara Latham … writing: 'Really??? After all we have done. I hope this has been falsely reported' … The ensuing email correspondence between Coca-Cola officials and campaign insiders reveals the deep connections the soda giant enjoys in Hillary-land at multiple levels, which the company leaned on to urge Clinton to walk back her support for soda taxes last April."

As noted by The Russels:33 "If there is any doubt that Coca-Cola's generous donations come with strings attached, Tuggle's email should erase all doubt. When Coke opens its coffers, it expects reciprocity." At the end of the day, Coca-Cola's insiders staved off yet another threat, assuring the company that taxing soda was not actually part of Clinton's policy agenda, and that she would not pursue the matter any further. Indeed, ever since then, Clinton has stayed mum on the issue of soda taxes.

Coke and Clinton Are Longtime Bedfellows

I recently wrote about how first lady Michelle Obama's organic food campaign was undermined and turned into an anti-obesity campaign focused on exercise with little attention given to diet, and here we find evidence suggesting the junk food industry is directing Clinton in a very similar manner.

Granted, Clinton has a long history with Coca-Cola, with the Clinton Foundation having received upwards of $10 million from the company. Coca-Cola marketing executive Wendy Clark also took a four-month sabbatical from her corporate position to aid Mrs. Clinton's campaign.

What the leaked emails reveal, however, are the undisclosed ties and behind-the-scenes coordination occurring between the two parties. Correspondence leaked by Wikileaks also shows Coca-Cola chairman and CEO Muhtar Kent was even on her list as a potential running mate. Just imagine the influence the sugar and soda industries would have with a Coca-Cola CEO as Vice President of the U.S.! As reported by Newsweek:34

"[T]his round of leaked emails from campaign chairman Podesta contains a lengthy list of 'first cut' picks compiled by Podesta and other top Clinton advisers … [A]mong the business leaders considered by the Clinton camp Gates's wife, Melinda Gates … Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors; Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox; Muhtar Kent, CEO of Coca-Cola … Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks …"

Marshall and Latham

The leaked emails show that Marshall, who holds a high level post in Clinton's presidential campaign, has also been simultaneously working for Coca-Cola's communications team, billing them $7,000 per month for "strategic consulting and marketing work."35

Marshall's relationship with Mrs. Clinton and the White House goes back a long way. Between 1993 and 1997, she served as Mrs. Clinton's special assistant, after which she became White House Social Secretary, a post she held until 2001. Marshall has also served as Chief of Protocol at the State Department.

Chief of staff to the chairman of Hillary for America, Sara Latham, also has deep ties to Coke, having worked with the company through her Latham Group firm (which she founded in 2006), until August 2015.

She too has held a variety of high-level political positions through her career, including special assistant to White House chief of staff John Podesta, deputy assistant to the president and deputy director of presidential scheduling. Interestingly, Latham also worked on British Prime Minister Tony Blair's re-election campaign.36

A third person of interest not mentioned by Politico is Robert C. Fisher. Emails from July 2015 were sent between a long list of Coca-Cola executives and employees — and two "outsiders:" Latham and Fisher.

The emails in question were in reference to a citizen's petition created by the consumer group U.S. Right to Know (US RTK), asking the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to issue warning letters to Coca-Cola and Pepsi, concluding that the beverages are misbranded because the use of the term "diet" is false and misleading. Latham's ties to Coke has already been explained, but who is Fisher and why does he matter?

Who Is Robert Fisher?

Fisher is managing director of Hills & Company,37 an international consultant firm established by Carla A. Hills in 1993.38 Four years prior, in 1989, Hills was nominated to be the new U.S. trade representative.

Her nomination was initially criticized as creating a potential conflict of interest for the Bush administration, as her husband, Roderick Hills, was an international trade consultant.39 As noted by Bloomberg in a 1994 article on power couples and the conflicts of interest married couples can create in each other's careers:40

"Given the potential for conflicts, she promised at her Senate confirmation hearing that the USTR's general counsel would oversee her husband's business activities. Roderick also resigned from the bank and boards, and the couple took a big hit when forced to sell a large stock portfolio. 'The rules were too harsh,' says Carla Hills."

While working as a U.S. trade representative, Hills was a lead U.S. negotiator for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).41 At present, she serves on the international board of J.P. Morgan Chase. Mr. Hill is also a former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

This is the power couple Fisher represents as managing director of Hill & Company, and the fact that Fisher is included in these Coca-Cola emails hints at the level of political influence the company has at its disposal.

Emails Reveal Coke Is Fighting Variety of Health Protective Legislation

Emails leaked by Wikileaks also reveal the extent to which Coca-Cola is fighting, or preparing to fight, legislation that protects either human health or the environment. To call it dismaying would be an understatement. As reported by Medium.com:42

"A recent leak of Coca-Cola's executive emails uncovered the February and March 2016 lobbying priorities for Coca-Cola Europe.43 The soda company categorizes its priorities into three buckets: 'Fight Back,' 'Prepare' or 'Monitor' based on a policy's impact on their sales and its likelihood to pass …

Coke doesn't deserve public health's trust. They're fighting against protecting kids from soda advertising, nutrition labeling, labeling BPA, packaging regulation, restricting plastic usage, soda taxes and paying for the environmental impact of its products. Sounds like an unhealthy agenda."

Soda Industry Talks Out of Both Sides of Its Mouth

In related news, Scientific American44 recently took aim at the soda industry in an article aptly titled: "If Soda Companies Don't Want to Be Treated Like Tobacco Companies They Need to Stop Acting Like Them." In it, the author notes that:

"The evidence45 for comparing the two industries keeps coming. Both try to sway public opinion, avoid accountability and muddle the science … [U]nlike other food products, one can't argue that humans must drink sweetened beverages to maintain health and life.

So comparing them to cigarettes is not much of a stretch, especially when you start to examine the behaviors of the tobacco and soda industries side-by-sideWhile denying the links between obesity, poor health and soda consumption, we have seen an increase in offerings of diet, low-calorie and low-sugar beverages.

Even while decrying their reputation as a significant driver of obesity, soda companies love to tout their work in reducing obesity, specifically by promoting physical activity but also by reducing the number of sugar calories in the American diet. So which is it? If sugary beverages have not been a significant driver of obesity in America, why has the beverage industry been reducing the amount of sugar in its products?"

Soda Politics — What You Don't Know Will Hurt You

It's become quite evident that the junk food and beverage industry is just as powerful and nefarious as the pharmaceutical industry when it comes to influencing policy makers. And, should Clinton nab the presidential nomination, we now know what to expect regarding her stance on junk food and sugary beverages.

Marshall and Latham are an integral part of Coca-Cola's strategic marketing team, and Fisher gives Coke access to powerful political insiders. Hills may have left her post as U.S. trade representative, but chances are she hasn't lost her old contacts, or their respect.

The take-home message is simple: Beware of industry-funded research, and be mindful of the power of conflicts of interest. The harm that can come from unholy alliances such as those discussed here is very real. Real lives are at stake. The health and future of children hang in the balance.

Corruption is indifferent to political parties, and the warning is to reconsider the accumulation of powers in the country and the world.   The best place for power to be held is with the individual, not with a political party or position.

Sadly, companies whose profits depend on selling health-harming products simply do not care about that. They claim they do, but their actions speak far louder than words. As noted earlier, they donate millions of dollars to health organizations under the guise of supporting health measures and health education, then turn around and spend millions more to undermine legislative efforts to widely implement health-affirming efforts.

The fact of the matter is, talk is cheap, and actions often speak louder than words. In the case of Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, their actions clearly demonstrate that they do not care about children's health. They don't care about the fact that their products have created a global health crisis of staggering proportions. Since they refuse to take responsibility or allow measures to curb excess consumption, you simply must take matters firmly into your own hands.

Teach your children about the harms of excess sugar, and be a role model yourself. That may be one of the most powerful interventions at our disposal for the time being. Also recognize that, if you struggle with overweight or obesity, swapping sugary beverages for pure water is perhaps the best first step you can take to regain control over your health.

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