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Coke Caught Influencing Health Policy Again, Increasing Obesity

Written by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

coke manipulate public health policy

Story at-a-glance -

  • In 2015, Coke was caught manipulating policy through the Global Energy Balance Network. They then redirected their efforts to emerging markets such as China, as soda sales in the U.S. began dropping
  • As oversight is limited in China, the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) — a corporate funded organization founded by a former senior vice president from Coke — has been able to keep their offices with China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention
  • Big Soda’s core message has been that the obesity epidemic is driven by a lack of activity, as opposed to indulging in sugar-based foods and beverages, despite overwhelming scientific evidence you will never be able to out-exercise your diet
  • The health initiative, Healthy China 2030, which hopes to change habits and improve the health of a nation now carrying the largest population of overweight people, shows evidence of influence by soda companies as it stresses exercise and downplays nutrition
  • Drinking just one soda a day may increase your risk of stroke, dementia, obesity and metabolic syndrome, while choosing coffee, tea or juicing delivers energy and health benefits, without damage triggered by soda

Using convoluted logic to protect their profit margins, Big Soda, and particularly Coca-Cola, is using some of the same strategies in China that got them into public relations trouble in the U.S. Sweetened beverages have been identified as a major contributor to the rising rate of obesity and diabetes around the world, including a meteoric rise in China.

In light of this evidence, many public health organizations are beginning to take a stand against added sugar, including the American Heart Association (AHA), the American Diabetes Association (ADA) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

Although science has demonstrated glucose and fructose are metabolized differently, some public health organizations continue to claim obesity is a matter of consuming more calories than you burn. Evidence shows sugar wields harmful metabolic effects beyond simple calories and appears to be addictive, leading some to suggest elimination and not moderation is the best option.

However, this would significantly impact Big Sodas profit margin as all of their products contain sugar or sugar substitutes. To offset the push for better health through eating nutritious foods, the food, chemical and biotechnology industries built an intricate and powerful system to manipulate public and scientific opinion.

For instance, Coca-Cola funded the Global Energy Balance Network aimed at producing confusing information about soda science.1 Once their astroturfing tactics were discovered, the group was disbanded.

In much the same way AstroTurf mimics real grass, astroturfing is the practice of masking the sponsors of a message or organization so it appears as though it originates from a grassroots effort.

One 12-ounce can of regular soda has 33 grams of sugar and 36 grams of net carbohydrates, far more than your body can safely handle in a day. As soda sales are dropping in the U.S., Big Soda has identified a market ripe for the picking, where oversight is limited and free media coverage is not allowed.

Big Soda Finds a Burgeoning Market in China

Today, China is Coke's third largest market by volume,2 as the industry battles public opinion after the U.S. Surgeon General called on all Americans to fight obesity by reducing their sugar intake. Big soda has not given up without a fight as they blocked New York City's ban on large drink sizes and lobbied against soda restrictions.

The industry has funded exercise specialists to promote physical activity as the best solution to obesity in an effort to divert attention away from the proven link between what you eat and your weight. As sales are plummeting, the industry recognizes it's losing the battle.

A Gallup Poll3 in 2014 revealed 63 percent of Americans were actively trying to avoid soda, as compared to 41 percent polled in 2002.4 As the number of nations raising a price on sugary drinks with taxes continues to rise, this year topping 30, the U.S., China and Australia have not followed suit.5

Each of these countries struggle with an epidemic of obesity and health related problems, including cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes. China continues to have vastly underdeveloped markets for products associated with an "American way of life," which Big Soda, and particularly Coca-Cola, has been able to take advantage of.

With a substantial population, huge growth potential remains for the conglomerate, making it "critically important to the future growth of our business," according to Coke chairman of the board and former chief executive officer Muhtar Kent.6

Industry Efforts Wildly Successful Without Watchdog Organizations and Free Media

Coca-Cola's efforts have been dangerously successful, in part because of their close relationship with the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) — a corporate funded organization founded by a former Coca-Cola senior vice president.7 Ostensibly, the organization claims to bring together scientists from industry, government and academia to "provide science that improves public health."

The organization is funded by food and beverage corporations, such as Nestle, McDonald's, Coke and PepsiCo, and has established standard levels of giving expected from their participating organizations.

However, evidence suggests the organization is a front aimed at influencing science and policies to benefit corporate interests over public health. According to internal documents, the organization is funded by the food and agriculture industries with influence extending to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know8 through freedom of information act (FOIA) requests, reveal the CDC director, charged with preventing heart disease and stroke, has tried to help ILSI influence the WHO to back off anti-sugar talks. Ever since ILSI's inception, Coca-Cola has maintained close ties and has gone to great lengths to shift the blame for obesity away from sugar and onto exercise.

Their close relationship in China goes significantly further than what the ILSI has been able to achieve in the West.9 In an investigative report published in the BMJ by Susan Greenhalgh, an anthropologist at Harvard University who has studied science policy in China, alleges Coke has quietly influenced how China has tackled growing rates of obesity by promoting exercise over nutrition.10

She began corresponding with scientists in China as she was originally interested in chronicling the history of obesity in the country. China's obesity rate has been especially pronounced; in 1991, 20 percent were obese, but by 2011 it had risen to 42 percent of the population. According to Greenhalgh,11 "The major takeaway is that Coca-Cola's influence is global. It has been able to quietly influence the science and policy of chronic disease, including obesity."

ILSI's Close Ties With China Influences Governmental Policy

Greenhalgh's investigation centered on the ILSI organization, which infamously was once accused by WHO as having received money from the tobacco industry, which it then used to promote research downplaying the effects of secondhand smoke. The organization now has more than 12 branches in several countries, including China, and a particularly close relationship with the Chinese government.

From 2004 to 2015, ILSI-China sponsored or cosponsored six international obesity conferences featuring scientist who promoted fitness, not diet, as the key to preventing and lowering obesity rates.12 The ILSI-China headquarters is located inside the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the equivalent of the U.S. CDC.13

Without the freedom to publish investigative pieces in the way possible in the U.S. and other countries, state-run publications do not criticize the government's relationship with ILSI-China. In Greenhalgh's conversations with Chinese scientists she found they didn't appear bothered by the industry's close ties, as scientists are elsewhere.14

In a report from UNICEF, childhood obesity skyrocketed after 1990. According to the researchers, 15 "China is home to a staggering number of obese children." One Chinese government campaign, Happy 10 Minutes, encourages children to exercise for 10 minutes each day in what would seem to be a positive step toward improving public health.16

However, the initiative emphasizes exercise over nutrition, against most research demonstrating you can never out-exercise what you eat. It happens the fitness-is-best message has been the handiwork of Coca-Cola and other food and beverage giants that have helped to shape decades of public policy on obesity and diet-related illnesses.

The industry's efforts to manipulate nutrition science and policy in the U.S. is well-documented. In a paper published in the Journal of Public Health policy, researchers wrote:17

"This shift aligned with Coca-Cola's message that it is activity, not diet, that matters — a claim few public health scholars accept. These changes correlated with the growing importance of Coca-Cola's funding, ideas, and affiliated researchers via ILSI-China.

In putting its massive resources behind only one side of the science, and with no other parties sufficiently resourced to champion more balanced solutions that included regulation of the food industry, the company, working through ILSI, redirected China's chronic disease science, potentially compromising the public's health."

Big Soda Wants to Avoid Any Blame for Rising Rates of Obesity

The stunning influence Coca-Cola is wielding in China was in part developed to protect their financial interests and to engender as much support as possible to lay blame for obesity on any other doorstep except sugary beverages.

Coca-Cola's influence over Chinese society began in the late 1970s when it began exploiting limited opportunities for Chinese researchers to access funds.18 ILSI began promoting the narrative that all foods and drinks could potentially be part of a healthy diet.

Interestingly, this was the core message of the Global Energy Balance Network, which Coca-Cola believed could be used as a "weapon" to "change the conversation" about obesity and divert attention away from their products.19

A rising urban population with access to disposable income and a growing demand for international cuisine has driven obesity to the point China now lays claim to the title as having the largest overweight population in the world, bumping the U.S. to second place.20

There are more than 43 million men and 46 million women in China classified as overweight. But, while ILSI continues to push exercise over eating nutritional foods, there has been no shortage of research linking excessive sugar consumption with obesity, and the intake of sugar-sweetened beverages appears to have a particularly strong link.

UCLA researchers found adults who drank at least one sugar-sweetened beverage a day are 27 percent more likely to be overweight or obese.21 Even those who only drank soda occasionally had a 15 percent greater risk, and a growing number of studies have linked rising childhood obesity rates to increased consumption of sugary beverages as well.

As Marion Nestle, Ph.D., who holds a master's degree in public health from University of California, Berkeley, and a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology, wrote in The Guardian:22

"For at least the last 10 years, Coca-Cola's annual reports to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission have listed obesity and its health consequences as the single greatest threat to the company profits. The industry counters this threat with intensive marketing, lobbying and millions of dollars poured into fighting campaigns to tax or cap the size of sugary drinks …

[T]he Mayo Clinic Proceedings23 published a study arguing that the results of national dietary surveys, such as those that link sugary drinks to Type 2 diabetes, are so flawed that they constitute a major misuse of public funds. The authors report honoraria, speaking and consulting fees from Coca-Cola."

China Focuses on Reducing Rising Obesity Without Addressing Dietary Changes

In response to a progressively unhealthy lifestyle, the Chinese government has initiated a Healthy China 2030 plan with the aim to make China healthy by 2030. The blueprint for the plan includes promotion of health as a habit and the goal to bump the population's life expectancy by four years.

WHO believes this may be a move to put health at the center of the country's entire policymaking machinery. Interestingly, food and beverage companies have also jumped on the bandwagon, heralding Healthy China 2030 as a positive step in public health policy.

The excitement of the food and beverage industry may be related to what appears to be their influence on the policy.24 In reading through the plan it's easy to see key indicators of their influence, including frequent exercise, integrating sports and exercise with medical care, and promoting physical exercise.

The plan calls for developing a well-balanced diet by improving knowledge and literacy rates, reducing nutritional deficiencies and reducing the average daily salt intake by 20 percent. However, the plan does not discuss any other nutritional changes, sugar intake or what a balanced diet may look like.

Choosing Healthier Beverages Reduces Your Risk of Obesity and Ill Health

Don't fall into the trap of reaching for a soda when you're thirsty. For a discussion of the other side effects of drinking sweetened beverages, including links to research demonstrating a higher risk of depression, metabolic syndrome, stroke and dementia, see my previous article, "Give Up Soda."

Instead, consider swapping out your soda for clean water, a cup of black organic coffee, fresh juicing or tea. Each of these options have significant health benefits associated with consumption, taste great and offer some of the same energy boosting effects you're looking for in caffeinated sodas.