The Coca-Cola Company, which has suffered a large decline in consumption of sugary sodas as consumers worry about obesity, has formed a new organization to emphasize exercise as the best way to control obesity and to play down the importance of cutting calories.
Coke and other beverage makers have long funneled money to industry-leaning scientists and formed innocent-sounding front groups to spread the message that sugary sodas have no deleterious effect on health and should not be taxed or regulated. The new organization, the nonprofit Global Energy Balance Network, is the latest effort to put a “science based” gloss on industry positions, as described by Anahad O’Connor in The Times.
It is led by respected scientists who say Coca-Cola will have no control over what they study or say, but corporate sponsorship tends to affect a study’s results. An analysis published in PLOS Medicine found that studies financed by Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, the American Beverage Association and the sugar industry were five times more likely to find no link between sugary drinks and weight gain than studies reporting no industry sponsorship or financial conflicts of interest.
The beverage industry in general, and Coca-Cola in particular, have suffered from public health campaigns against sugar-sweetened beverages. Since the late 1990s, the amount of full-calorie soda drunk by the average American has dropped 25 percent, from 40 gallons a year in 1998 to 30 gallons in 2014. As calorie consumption from beverages and other foods plummeted, obesity rates stopped rising for adults and school-age children and came down for the youngest children. The epidemic is not over — more than a third of American adults are still considered obese — but trends are heading in the right direction for public health.
That poses potential financial problems for Coca-Cola. In its 2014 annual report to the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company cited a multitude of risk factors that could adversely affect its business. First on the list was “obesity concerns” that could cause consumers to stop drinking sugary sodas, lead governments to impose new taxes or regulations and prompt lawsuits, actions which could “adversely affect our profitability.” Although Coke and Pepsi also sell diet sodas, those sales have also been declining in recent years, apparently because of fears over the safety of their substitute sweeteners.
The industry has used a variety of tactics to spread its message — providing speakers for conventions or educational courses of dietitians and nutritionists, financing the research of like-minded scientists, and deploying armies of lobbyists to persuade cities, states and Congress not to crack down on sugary drinks. In a particularly brazen move, Coca-Cola paid dietitians to write blog posts or articles in February suggesting that a mini-can of Coke would make a good snack food. A mini-can of Coke contains 7½ ounces and has 90 calories. A regular 12-ounce can has 140 calories.
In Philadelphia, when the mayor sought to impose a new tax on sugary sodas, the industry’s trade group created a new foundation to provide a $10 million grant to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to fund research and treat overweight children, and successfully lobbied the City Council to let the proposal die. In New York State in 2010, Gov. David Paterson proposed a 1-cent-per-ounce tax to be paid by the bottlers or distributors. Coke, Pepsi and the rest of the industry responded with a burst of lobbying and political contributions and an advertising campaign describing it as an unfair tax that would cut into family food budgets. The tax proposal went nowhere in the Legislature.
Meanwhile, the evidence continues to mount that sugar-sweetened drinks are a major contributor to obesity, heart disease and diabetes, and that exercise makes only a modest contribution to weight loss compared to ingesting fewer calories.
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