Coca-Cola Funds Efforts to Shift Blame for Obesity Away From Calories

The Coca-Cola Company is funding scientists who argue that the solution to the obesity epidemic is for people to exercise more and worry less about cutting calories, the New York Times reports.

The world's largest producer of sugary beverages has provided logistical support and $1.5 million in funding to launch the Global Energy Balance Network, a nonprofit organization launched last March to promote the view that scientists and the public are overly fixated on calorie intake and largely overlook physical inactivity as a significant cause of obesity. The group's website says there is "strong evidence" that the key to preventing weight gain is not reducing calorie intake — as many public health experts recommend — "but maintaining an active lifestyle and eating more calories," and it points to two research papers funded by Coca-Cola to support the claim.

Health experts told the Times that the group's message is misleading and is part of the company's efforts to deflect criticism about the role sugary drinks have played in the increase in obesity and Type 2 diabetes in the United States. Over the last two decades consumption of full-calorie sodas by the average American has fallen by some 25 percent.

"Coca-Cola's sales are slipping, and there's this huge political and public backlash against soda, with every major city trying to do something to curb consumption," said Michele Simon, a public health lawyer. "This is a direct response to the ways that the company is losing. They're desperate to stop the bleeding." While Coca-Cola has long cast the obesity epidemic as primarily an exercise problem, public health advocates said the company is going a step further now, recruiting reputable scientists to make the case for them.

For instance, Steven N. Blair, a professor at the University of South Carolina who also serves as a GEBN vice president and whose research has formed much of the basis of federal guidelines for physical activity, has received $3.5 million in funding from Coca-Cola since 2008, while Gregory A. Hand, dean of the West Virginia University School of Public Health, received $806,500 from the company for an "energy flux" study. In addition, Hand and James O. Hill, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, were awarded $507,000 and $1 million, respectively, to establish GEBN, which Hill now serves as president. Coca-Cola's public relations department and GEBN officials told the Times that the company had no control over the organization's work or message and that it saw no problem with Coca-Cola's support for the organization because the company and nonprofit had been transparent about that support. Until an obesity expert at the University of Ottawa inquired about the group's funding, however, the GEBN website and social media campaign made no mention of Coca-Cola.

Hill said he had sought money from Coca-Cola to start the nonprofit because there was no funding available from his university, adding that he believed public health authorities could more easily change the way people eat by working with the food industry instead of against it. "'Eat less' has never been a message that's been effective," said Hill. "The message should be 'Move more and eat smarter.' "