Amid accusations that its Global Energy Balance Network was little more than a Coca-Cola-funded shill using real doctors to downplay the role of sugary drinks in the current obesity epidemic, the University of Colorado School of Medicine recently returned a $1 million donation to the beverage biggie. But newly revealed e-mails show the direct influence that Coke bought with this supposed anti-obesity organization.
The AP has uncovered a number of e-mails between the president of GEBN — a Colorado med school professor — and Coke’s chief health and science officer that demonstrate the soda company’s intention with funding an organization that rightly stressed the importance of exercise and balanced diets but deliberately attempted to remove the yoke of blame from Coca-Cola.
• An Oct. 2012 e-mail refers to the upcoming donation from Coca-Cola as a “stimulus package” and makes it clear to the future GEBN president that it’s “non-negotiable” that he collaborate with private industry.
• The next month, Coke writes to provide researchers with talking points about a Coke-funded study they were working on. The company also offers them media training to get the researchers more camera-friendly.
• In July 2014, the Coke exec likens the goal of the GEBN to “a political campaign, we will develop, deploy and evolve a powerful and multi-faceted strategy to counter radical organizations and their proponents.”
The hope was to make GEBN “the place the media goes to for comment on any obesity issue.”
• Then in Nov. 2014, the GEBN president clearly demonstrates his support for his corporate sponsor.
“It is not fair that Coca-Cola is signaled out as the #1 villain in the obesity world, but that is the situation and makes this your issue whether you like it or not,” he writes in an e-mail obtained by the AP. “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.”
Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent is effectively shrugging off the e-mails, saying “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.”
Before the returning of the Coca-Cola donation, the GEBN’s ethics and motives were questioned because of videos like the one below, featuring the GEBN vice president blaming the media for linking obesity to high-calorie foods, declaring that there “virtually no compelling evidence that that, in fact, is the cause.”