Industry money was used to covertly influence journalists with the message that exercise is a bigger problem than sugar consumption in the obesity epidemic, documents obtained under freedom of information laws show. The documents detail how Coca-Cola funded journalism conferences at a US university in an attempt to create favourable press coverage of sugar sweetened drinks. When challenged about funding of the series of conferences, the academics involved weren’t forthcoming about industry involvement.
For drinks manufacturers such as Coca-Cola the idea that consuming their products is fine as long as you exercise—reinforced with expensive advertising campaigns associated with sport—has been an important one. As Yoni Freedhoff, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Ottawa, told The BMJ, “For Coca-Cola the ‘energy balance’ message has been a crucial one to cultivate, as its underlying inference is that, even for soda drinkers, obesity is more a consequence of inactivity than it is of regularly drinking liquid candy.”
The six figure bill for funding these journalism conferences was more than repaid in favourable press coverage, say critics. Documented evidence of the industry’s covert influence on the media is rare. In 2004, researchers examined secret documents made public during tobacco litigation. Attempting to derail the effect of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s 1993 report on secondhand smoke, the tobacco industry successfully placed stories in major print publications about the report’s “scientific weakness” to help “build considerable reasonable doubt . . . particularly among consumers,” the researchers wrote.1 They concluded that even journalists can fall victim to well orchestrated public relations efforts, regardless of the quality of the science used in these PR exercises.
Coca-Cola funding at the University of Colorado
The story begins with articles last year in the New York Times and Associated Press on the Global Energy Balance Network, a now defunct “science based” collaboration between Coca-Cola and university scientists to tackle the obesity crisis.2 The company donated $1m to the University of Colorado, home institution of the Global Energy Balance Network’s president, James Hill, a professor of paediatrics. After experts criticised the network as a Coca-Cola ploy to shift the public’s perception of the causes of obesity from diet and consumption of sugary drinks to lack of exercise, the network shut down in December 2015. The University of Colorado later returned the money to Coca-Cola, and the company now declares its funding to external organisations on a website.
Not yet reported are several journalism conferences the University of Colorado ran with funding from Coca-Cola. Emails and documents obtained by The BMJ under freedom of information laws show that Coca-Cola began approaching professors at the university in early 2011 in an attempt to sway journalists. The tactic bore fruit. In one example, a CNN reporter attended the 2014 journalism conference and later contributed to a story that argued that obesity’s cause could be lack of exercise, not consumption of sugary soft drinks. Critics told The BMJ that Coca-Cola’s $37 000 support for that particular conference and the resulting story was a better bargain than an advertisement placed on CNN’s website.
Emails between Hill and Coca-Cola in 2011 detail the planning for a journalism conference that took place in early February 2012. Almost 20 journalists attended the conference, with assistance from the non-profit, Washington DC based National Press Foundation.
Some months after the event, Hill emailed a Coca-Cola executive and described the conference as a “home run,” adding, “The journalists told us this was an amazing event and they generated a lot of stories.” Hill continued, “You basically supported the meeting this year . . . I think we can get many more sponsors involved next year.”
Months later, the company agreed to send $45 000 to the University of Colorado Foundation for further support.
In August 2013 Hill emailed Coca-Cola about another journalism conference on obesity held with the National Press Foundation. Emails and questions to the foundation suggest that it did not know about these conversations with Coca-Cola. Hill wrote to the company: “The conference was a great success and even better than last year. These journalist[s] came away with a much more realistic understanding of obesity. Thanks again for your support.” Hill apparently attached a report of the conference, as a Coca-Cola executive responded, “Have read the entire [report]—excellent. Count us in for next year.”