Does research on obesity go better with Coke?

Larry Husten is a medical journalist covering cardiiology

The New York Times reports that Coca-Cola gives financial support to scientists and a new foundation in order to help promote the message that the obesity epidemic is fueled not by too many calories or too much sugar but by not enough physical activity. The Times piece is well worth a read but the issue it takes up is not new.

Last year I wrote a long post which included an interview with a scientist, Carl “Chip” Lavie, a Louisiana cardiologist who is a frequent co-author of Steven Blair, another researcher who is the main focus of the Times story.

[The interview is included in this article]

First let me add one interesting detail that the Times neglected to report. In 2012 Steven Blair was chosen by Coca-Cola, a sponsor of the Olympics, to be a torchbearer for the London summer games.

Lavie writes that his views are “not for sale.” I do not want to suggest anything so stark, but I also think it is fair – and studies have demonstrated – that gifts, even very small gifts, can exert strong unconscious effects. When combined with the flattery and attention of being designated a “key opinion leader” an unconscious alignment with a company can easily occur.

Moreover, as I wrote last year [2013], in a recent paper in PLOS Medicine researchers conducted a systematic review of systematic reviews examining the association between sugar-sweetened beverages and weight gain and obesity. For the papers in which the authors reported no conflict of interest, 10 out of the 12 findings supported the association between sugar-sweetened beverages and weight gain or obesity. In stark contrast, 5 out of the 6 papers with industry support failed to find evidence for any such association. In other words, systematic reviews with industry support were 5 times more likely to find no significant association.”Our results,” wrote the authors, “confirm the hypothesis that authors of systematic reviews may draw their conclusions in ways consistent with their sponsors’ interests.”

Lavie defends Coke’s funding of research by saying that “pharma does this all the time.” This analogy represents a stretch of logic. Although pharma-funded research is often criticized, and there are many active battles over the precise role for pharma in research, it is widely agreed that pharmaceutical companies must play a vital and important role in medical research. No one would seriously argue that Coca-Cola has medicinal value. The only active question is exactly how bad an effect Coke has on public health. A much better analogy, though still imperfect, is the tobacco industry…

I think it is naive to believe with Lavie that Coke’s main interest in providing financial support to researchers in this field is “to provide a public service.” For-profit companies like Coke and Pepsi don’t spend enormous sums of money just to provide a public service. They expect a significant return on their investment, though this may be difficult to quantify. In any case, it is more than obvious why Coke would be interested in supporting scientists who maintain that sugar does not play an important role in the obesity epidemic…

Readers should be aware of a much larger context here. This is not an isolated incident. Large food and beverage companies have been insinuating their way into the healthcare discussion for many years. In the last few years I’ve noted a number of attempts, subtle and not-so-subtle, by industry to influence health policy. Earlier this year [2014] I reported that the newly elected president of the Institute of Medicine, cardiologist Victor Dzau, was a member of the Pepsico board of directors. In 2012 the president of the American College of Cardiology was chosen by the Coca-Cola Company to carry the Olympic Flame. (Steven Blair, another co-author of the JACC paper, was also chosen by Coke to be a torch-bearer.) Coke also pays a lot of money to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute to put a red dress logo on the Diet Coke label, while the American Heart Association has struck deals with, among others, Cheetos and Subway.

I am sure that these represent just the tip of a very large iceberg.

There’s even more meat in the article. And less sugar. 🙂

Definitely worth a read – not one you’re likely to come across in the news-as-entertainment free press.

One thought on “Does research on obesity go better with Coke?

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