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Emails reveal Coke’s role in anti-obesity group

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New York: A nonprofit founded to combat obesity says the USD 1.5 million it received from Coke has no influence on its work.

But emails obtained by The Associated Press show the world’s largest beverage maker was instrumental in shaping the Global Energy Balance Network, which is led by a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

Coke helped pick the group’s leaders, edited its mission statement and suggested articles and videos for its website.

In an email last November, the group’s president tells a top Coke executive: “I want to help your company avoid the image of being a problem in peoples’ lives and back to being a company that brings important and fun things to them.”

Coke executives had similarly high hopes. A proposal circulated via email at the company laid out a vision for a group that would “quickly establish itself as the place the media goes to for comment on any obesity issue.”

It said the group would use social media and run a political-style campaign to counter the “shrill rhetoric” of “public health extremists” who want to tax or limit foods they deem unhealthy.

When contacted by the AP about the emails, Coca-Cola Co. CEO Muhtar Kent said in a statement that “it has become clear to us that there was not a sufficient level of transparency with regard to the company’s involvement with the Global Energy Balance Network.”

“Clearly, we have more work to do to reflect the values of this great company in all that we do,” Kent said.

The Atlanta-based company told the AP it has accepted the retirement of its chief health and science officer, Rhona Applebaum, who initially managed the relationship with the group.

It said it will not fill the position as it overhauls how it goes about its health efforts. It also said it has stopped working with the Global Energy Balance Network.

It’s just the latest example of Coke working with outside experts to promote messages that benefit the company. Coke has long maintained that the academics and other experts it works with espouse their own views. But the collaborations can be fraught and blur the lines between advertisements and genuine advice.

In February, several health and fitness experts paid by the company wrote online posts with tips on healthy habits. Each suggested a mini-soda as a snack idea.

One dietitian wrote five such posts in less than a year. The Global Energy Balance Network came under fire in August after The New York Times reported it was funded by Coke. On November 6, the University of Colorado School of Medicine said it was returning USD 1 million from the company because of the distraction it was creating.

The University of South Carolina said it plans to keep USD 500,000 it received from Coke because one of its professors is also among the group’s leaders. The school said there was no misuse of funds.