Public Health Agency Sued for Coke Collusion

public health agency coke collusion

Story at-a-glance -

  • U.S. Right to Know (USRTK), a nonprofit consumer and public health watchdog organization, is conducting an investigation to find out just how cozy the ties are between Coca-Cola and the CDC
  • They filed six Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with the CDC to look into its relationship with Coca-Cola in December 2017
  • The CDC acknowledged their receipt just days later but have not provided a response — a requirement for federal agencies within 20 business days of receiving an FOIA request
  • Now USRTK is suing the CDC due to its failure to comply with the FOIA requests and provide documents in response

By Dr. Mercola

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) should be cracking down on corporations promoting products linked to poor health and disease, including soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages. Instead, they appear to have taken the industry, and one of its flagship companies, Coca-Cola, under their protective wing. U.S. Right to Know (USRTK), a nonprofit consumer and public health watchdog organization, is conducting an investigation to find out just how cozy the ties are between Coca-Cola and the CDC.

They filed six Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with the CDC to look into its relationship with Coca-Cola in December 2017. While the CDC acknowledged their receipt just days later, they have not provided a response — a requirement for federal agencies within 20 business days of receiving an FOIA request. Now USRTK is suing the CDC due to its failure to comply with the FOIA requests and provide documents in response. USRTK co-director Gary Ruskin said in a news release:1

“We are suing the CDC to uncover the extent and nature of the CDC’s relationship with Coca-Cola … Just as it is wrong for the CDC to assist tobacco companies, it is also wrong for CDC to assist obesogenic companies like Coca-Cola.”

What Have 19 Former FOIA Requests Revealed About the CDC?

Since 2016, USRTK has filed 19 FOIA requests with the CDC, which have helped to expose a number of concerning ties between the CDC and Coca-Cola. For instance, former CDC Director Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald received $1 million in funding from Coca-Cola2 to combat childhood obesity during her six-year stint as commissioner of Georgia’s public health department and has a history of promoting the soda industry’s alternative facts.

Her Coke-funded anti-obesity campaign focused on exercise. None of the recommendations involved cutting down on soda and junk food, yet research shows exercise cannot counteract the ill effects of a high-sugar (i.e., high soda) diet.

At the time of her appointment to CDC director, Jim O’Hara, director of health promotion policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest stated, “We hope Dr. Fitzgerald, as head of CDC, avoids partnering with Coke on obesity for the same reason she would avoid partnering with the tobacco industry on lung cancer prevention.”3

Ironically, Fitzgerald reportedly owned stocks in no less than five different tobacco companies, plus drug companies, when she was appointed CDC director. As part of her ethics agreement, she sold those stocks when accepting her new position. But then, mere months into the job, she went and bought stocks in Japan Tobacco International (JTI), one of the largest tobacco companies in the world.

She also bought stocks in a dozen other health-related companies, including Merck, Bayer, Humana and U.S. Foods Holding Corp. Politico exposed Fitzgerald’s tobacco investments, which led to her handing in her resignation a day later.4 Conflicts of interest seem to be a pattern at the CDC. Fitzgerald actually took the place of Barbara Bowman, Ph.D., former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention.

Bowman reportedly aided a Coca-Cola representative in efforts to influence World Health Organization (WHO) officials to relax recommendations on sugar limits.5 She left the agency unexpectedly, two days after her close ties with Coca-Cola were revealed.

Bowman, however, was not the only CDC official looking out for Coca-Cola. Uncovered emails also suggest that Michael Pratt, senior adviser for global health in the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion at the CDC, has also promoted and led research for the soda giant. According to the Huffington Post:6

“Pratt did not respond to questions about his work, which includes a position as a professor at Emory University, a private research university in Atlanta that has received millions of dollars from the Coca-Cola Foundation and more than $100 million from famed longtime Coca-Cola leader Robert W. Woodruff and Woodruff’s brother George.

Indeed, Coca-Cola’s financial support for Emory is so strong that the university states on its website that ‘it’s unofficially considered poor school spirit to drink other soda brands on campus.’”

CDC Receives Funding From Coca-Cola — How Much?

The CDC receives funding from Coca-Cola via the CDC Foundation. USRTK reported that the CDC Foundation received $1.1 million from Coca-Cola from 2010 to 2012, but contributions after that date have not been disclosed. While the CDC Foundation discloses contributions made by Coca-Cola in 2015, 2016 and 2017, the amounts are not made public.7

Another recent scandal to face the agency is the apparent banning of a handful of words and phrases from budget documents, including the terms “evidence-based” and “science-based.” The New York Times reported:8

“The news set off an uproar among advocacy groups … who denounced any efforts to muzzle federal agencies or censor their language. The Times confirmed some details of the report with several officials, although a few suggested that the proposal was not so much a ban on words but recommendations to avoid some language to ease the path toward budget approval … A former federal official, who asked not to be named, called the move unprecedented.”

It’s clear, nonetheless, that conflicts of interest have been corrupting the CDC’s mission for some time. In 2016, a group of senior CDC scientists even sent a letter to the CDC raising concerns about the conflicts of interest and industry ties that appear to be so common among CDC leaders.9 The group goes by the name CDC Scientists Preserving Integrity, Diligence and Ethics in Research (CDC SPIDER); individuals left their names out for fear of retaliation. The letter begins:10

“It appears that our mission is being influenced and shaped by outside parties and rogue interests. It seems that our mission and Congressional intent for our agency is being circumvented by some of our leaders. What concerns us most, is that it is becoming the norm and not the rare exception. Some senior management officials at CDC are clearly aware and even condone these behaviors.

… Some staff are intimidated and pressed to do things they know are not right. We have representatives from across the agency that witness this unacceptable behavior. It occurs at all levels and in all of our respective units. These questionable and unethical practices threaten to undermine our credibility and reputation as a trusted leader in public health.”

CDC Promotes Flawed ‘Energy Balance’ Theory

The CDC is among a number of public health agencies that promote “energy balance,” assuring that: “Healthy eating is all about balance. You can enjoy your favorite foods even if they are high in calories, fat or added sugars. The key is eating them only once in a while … ” The CDC even goes as far as to say, “The point is, you can figure out how to include almost any food in your healthy eating plan in a way that still helps you lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.”11

Really? Even soda? Researchers have known since the 1960s that your body metabolizes different types of carbohydrates, like glucose and fructose, in different ways, causing very different hormonal and physiological responses that absolutely may influence fat accumulation and metabolism.12

One 12-ounce can of regular soda has about 33 grams of sugar (8 1/4 teaspoons) and 36 grams of net carbohydrates, which is more than your body can safely handle, especially at one sitting.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommended that sugar should make up less than 10 percent of your total daily energy intake, with additional benefits to be had if you reduce it to below 5 percent (which amounts to about 25 grams, or 6 teaspoons of sugar a day).13 For optimal health, I recommend limiting your intake of net carbs to under 40 to 50 grams per day, which is virtually impossible to do if you drink soda.

Gary Taubes, co-founder of the Nutrition Science Initiative and the author of “The Case Against Sugar,” expertly documents sugar’s link to chronic disease and much more, including whether sugar should more aptly be described as a drug instead of a food. It doesn’t cause the immediate symptoms of intoxication, like dizziness, staggering, slurring of speech or euphoria, associated with other “drugs,” yet perhaps this only allowed its long-term medical consequences to go “unasked and unanswered.”

Most of us today will never know if we suffer even subtle withdrawal symptoms from sugar, because we’ll never go long enough without it to find out,” Taubes wrote, adding that sugar has likely killed more people than tobacco and that tobacco wouldn't have killed as many people as it did without sugar.14 Harvard School of Public Health further compiled a list of additional studies demonstrating the link between soda and chronic disease:15

  • Men who drank an average of one can of soda per day had a 20 percent higher risk of having a heart attack or dying from a heart attack than men who rarely consumed soda16
  • Women who consumed a can of soda daily over a 22-year study had a 75 percent higher risk of gout than women who rarely consumed soda17
  • Reducing soda consumption can reduce the prevalence of obesity and obesity-related diseases like Type 2 diabetes18

USRTK Seeks to ‘Shine the Light of Transparency’

The USRTK FOIA lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, states that it is seeking to secure records “in order to enhance the public’s understanding and awareness of the degree of behind-the-scenes communications between CDC officials and the private companies whose products may have implications for public health.” The filing continues, “In particular USRTK endeavors in this action to shine the light of transparency on interactions between vendors of sugary drinks and CDC officials.”19

Indeed, it’s a transparency that has been sorely lacking, and FOIA requests have so far proven to be a valuable tool to force their hand. In addition to the scandals involving Fitzgerald and Bowman, USRTK secured records via FOIA requests that reported documented “communications between CDC employees and other current and former Coca-Cola employees, such as Alex Malaspina.”20

Malaspina, a former senior vice president at Coca-Cola, founded the industry-funded International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), which has been implicated in seeking to influence science and public policy. For instance, the widespread prevalence of sugar in the U.S. diet is common knowledge, yet U.S. Dietary Guidelines only recommend limiting calories from added sugars to no more than 10 percent each day, or 12 teaspoons, for a 2,000-calorie diet.

If the Guidelines were truly put out to protect Americans’ health, it should be far lower and, in fact, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) did recommend that Americans reduce their intake of sugar-sweetened foods and beverages. However, this was followed by a flurry of activity from industry groups who, using tobacco-industry tactics, attempted to sway the dietary debate in their favor.

The day after DGAC’s report was released, another industry-backed group, International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC),21 sent out a mass email to its directors and staff detailing the call they’d had with the media earlier that morning, in which they discussed “insufficient evidence” behind the recommendation to reduce added sugars. More than 20 experts were apparently on hand to discuss the issues with the media. Bloomberg reported:22

“The email was then forwarded outside of the organization to Alex Malaspina, a former Coca-Cola executive and the founding president of ILSI. Malaspina, in turn, forwarded it to two current Coke executives, adding that ‘IFIC is coming through for our industry’ …

The next morning, in an email to Malaspina, Michael Ernest Knowles, a former vice president of Global Scientific and Regulatory Affairs at Coca-Cola and former president of ILSI, went further than media outreach, calling for ‘the generation of credible consensus science on the issues hitting the industry — obesity and causative factors, sugar, low/no calories sweetener safety — in particular we have to use external organizations in addition to any work we directly commission.’”

A report sponsored by ILSI was then published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, concluding “guidelines on dietary sugar do not meet criteria for trustworthy recommendations and are based on low-quality evidence” and suggesting public health officials be aware of this when making recommendations and consumers take it into account when making dietary choices.23,24

Will CDC’s True Colors Finally Be Revealed?

By suing the CDC for documents that may reveal its strong ties to Coca-Cola, USRTK is seeking to let Americans know that public health organizations are not always capable of protecting public health.

“Expanding upon its previous efforts, USRTK now seeks to flesh out the extent of these types of communications involving a host of CDC officials … [and current and former employees of The Coca-Cola Co.]. The intent of this action is to ensure that the public is better informed about these communications and to what extent, if any, they are having an impact on the CDC and its public health decisions that impact Americans’ lives,” the organization stated.25

Hopefully, justice will be served and the truth will be revealed, but in the meantime it’s up to you to take control of your own health, and giving up soda — both sugar-sweetened and diet — is one of the most fundamental steps you can take in doing so.