A paper published this week, which analyzed private emails exchanged between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Coca-Cola, revealed how the sugary drink corporation has tried to influence the public health policy decisions of a U.S. federal agency that is supposed to protect Americans' health.
The paper was published in the health policy journal Milbank Quarterly, and analyzed 295 pages from 86 emails obtained by the public health group U.S. Right To Know under the Freedom of Information Act. Of the non-profit's 10 Freedom of Information Act requests, three were still pending at the time of publication and five were rejected "as too broad or because no records were found," according to the study's authors. Only three were returned.
"The returned emails demonstrate three main themes in Coca-Cola's contact with CDC employees: to gain and expand access, to lobby, and to shift attention and blame away from sugar-sweetened beverages," the study states.
While plenty of scientific studies have shown that sugar is a leading cause of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, these emails reveal Coca Cola's ongoing mission to shift the blame for obesity away from sugar-sweetened beverages, and pin the world's obesity problem on a lack of physical activity.
Coca Cola's effort to gain and expand access within the CDC indicate there were efforts to strengthen institutional ties, in addition to building on relationships that already had a history from previous work experience. The former director of the CDC's Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention, Barbara Bowman, and Alex Malaspina, a former Coca-Cola senior vice president of external affairs and the founding president of International Life Science Institute (ILSI), were once colleagues: Bowman worked with Malaspina at Coca-Cola, and in 2016 Bowman retired after emails were made public that revealed she had been offering advice on how to influence world health authorities' minds on sugar taxes and beverage policy matters. Meanwhile, ILSI, far from being a nonpartisan nonprofit, was recently discovered to be an astroturf organization funded by junk food companies; indeed, its funding roster includes Coke, Nestlé, McDonalds, and PepsiCo. Previous investigations revealed how ILSI influenced public health policy regarding obesity in China.