Jason Riis and Karen Glanz on Coca-Cola's sponsorship of obesity research

Coca-Cola’s funding for a health advocacy nonprofit that stressed the importance of exercise over diet control in weight loss has backfired into a major PR disaster for the beverage company. Critics say the study’s findings push the message that so long as consumers exercise, they need not worry too much about cutting calories in what they consume — presumably including sugar-packed sodas. The controversy highlights the need for increased transparency in the conduct of such studies and the role of researchers, say experts.

Coca-Cola provided financial and logistics support for Global Energy Balance Network, a new nonprofit organization whose website gebn.org is registered to Coca-Cola’s headquarters in Atlanta, according to a New York Times report. Coca-Cola donated $1.5 million last year to start GEBN and has provided up to $4 million in project funding for two university professors — Dr. Steven N. Blair and James O. Hill — who are the organization’s founding members, the report added. The disclosures have snowballed into a major controversy for Coca-Cola. GEBN’s message “is misleading and meant to deflect attention away from recent studies about sugary drinks and their link to obesity and Type 2 diabetes,” the Times report said.

“Companies do this all the time. They support researchers of various universities looking at problems that relate to them,” said Wharton marketing professor Jason Riis, whose research focus is on consumer health. “Of course they’re going to put the money where they hope the story [would] go in the direction that favors them.”

“From a medical, public health and research perspective, this smells a lot like what we’ve seen with the tobacco industry, and with the drug industry,” said Karen Glanz, professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. Glanz noted that “a sea change” has occurred in the last decade with doctors being required to disclose the funding they receive from drug companies. “It has become tremendously more open,” she said of the drug industry. “But that change hasn’t seeped in as yet with consumer products.”

Riis and Glanz discussed the takeaways from the controversy on the Knowledge at Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)

The backlash prompted GEBN on Wednesday to pull down a video in which Dr. Blair, its vice president, reportedly criticized the emphasis on sugary drinks. In that video, which the New York Times cited earlier this month, Blair said, “Most of the focus in the popular media and in the scientific press is, ‘Oh they’re eating too much, eating too much, eating too much’ — blaming fast food, blaming sugary drinks and so on. And there’s really virtually no compelling evidence that that, in fact, is the cause.”

In his statement explaining why GEBN withdrew the video, Blair said GEBN is being wrongly portrayed as a network focusing only on physical activity. “This is not true and never has been true,” he wrote. On August 11, as the controversy snowballed, Hill, who is GEBN’s president, stated that media reports have oversimplified a complex issue. “Diet is a critical component of weight control, as are exercise, stress management, sleep and environmental and other factors,” he clarified.

In response to the controversy, Coca-Cola’s chairman and CEO Muhtar Kent pledged to bring more transparency in how his company engages with the public health and scientific communities.

Making Sponsored Research Credible

With the outcry over sponsored research, one big question is: Is it possible to pursue honest research when it is funded by corporations? Glanz and Riis discussed the ways to overcome those hurdles. “We do need to engage with industry, but accepting money from industry and assuming that there are no conditions behind it is a little hard to buy.” Added Riis: “Transparency is the key.”

Glanz highlighted the complications that arise in “funding credible researchers, [and] researchers taking money because money is hard to come by.” She said it is difficult to evaluate exactly how the source of that money may have influenced the research, while realizing “that there is an agenda from the company that is funding it.” Such a scenario is “troublesome,” she added, particularly because of the lack of transparency.

“From a medical, public health and research perspective, this smells a lot like what we’ve seen with the tobacco industry, and with the drug industry.” –Karen Glanz

Glanz advised sponsor companies and researchers “to be uber transparent” about their research, methods and findings, and disclose those annually on their website. To Coke’s credit, Kent said he has instructed Sandy Douglas, president of Coca-Cola North America, to publish on the company website updates every six months of its “efforts to reduce calories and market responsibly, along with a list of health and well-being partnerships and research activities we have funded in the past five years.”

“Disclosure is the way,” said Riis, adding, “I don’t think we should be scandalized by the fact that Coke is giving money to obesity researchers. Consumers need to be savvy about this.” He added that it would help if there were “more consistent standards” about how such affiliations are disclosed.

Other obstacles remain. Glanz said her research found that consultants and scientists that work on sponsored research often have to sign non-disclosure agreements or must have their publications approved. “It means if the results don’t turn out the way that they would like, then they never get published,” she said. “Sometimes [such data] gets killed.”

Fault Lines

Where exactly did GEBN stumble? According to Riis, funding by corporations “probably” has an influence on the outcome of studies. Research shows that “studies that are supported by companies like Coca-Cola are more likely to favor the story that those companies support.”

“It definitely leads to a bias, an attempt to shift the focus,” said Glanz of GEBN’s stance on sugary drinks. She noted that Blair and Hill have been doing research for decades on physical activity, health and obesity. She recalled Blair saying more than once that “the federal government has not invested enough money on the activity side of the equation.” She added: “The questionable part comes up when you take money from ‘big soda’: How does that influence what you are doing?”

Glanz also worried that researchers may decide that they “are not going to focus on any harm that may be [caused by the] products that [the] funders are producing and marketing.” She noted that based on the media reports, GEBN’s research in the current case did not appear to have produced any new findings, and characterized that as a “philosophical perspective … and an attempt to deflect off of sugar and soda.”

At the same time, according to Glanz, physical activity “is great” for prevention and management of not just cardiovascular diseases, but also obesity, diabetes, some types of cancer and cognitive decline, such as Alzheimer’s disease. “But [physical activity] is not the primary driver necessarily for [combating] overweight and obesity,” she said.

“I don’t think we should be scandalized by the fact that Coke is giving money to obesity researchers. Consumers need to be savvy about this.” –Jason Riis

Coke Caught Off-Guard?

Did Coca-Cola miscalculate the public reaction to its research? “The lay belief is that exercise is the best way to lose weight rather than changing your diet, which is what most scientists believe,” said Riis. “So they may have been caught off guard that so many people were surprised by the message.”

The media bashing in the controversy has come on top of other problems for Coca-Cola, Riis noted. Coca-Cola sales are down along with a general decline in soda sales. The sales volume of carbonated soft drinks fell 0.9% between 2013 and 2014, with Coca-Cola losing 1.1% and Pepsi 1.4%, according to latest data from Beverage Digest, a publication focused on the non-alcoholic beverages industry.

“The obesity trends are probably the single biggest threat to Coke’s long term profitability,” said Riis. The company’s funding of obesity research “allows them to say they are doing something, but they are not getting good press for it because it is being done in a sneaky kind of way,” noted Glanz. Added Riis: “It’s nice that we live in an age where companies and organizations get punished for that. We need more disclosure; it helps people make informed decisions.”

Riis said he felt “a little bit bad for Coke” in that it failed in its attempts to push Diet Coke products and didn’t get much buy-in from the public health community. “It’s very hard to spend the calories” from a 140-calorie can of regular Coke, compared to four calories in Diet Coke, he explained. With Diet Coke not taking off as expected, “now they have to try other things, and it seems to be now that they are addressing this exercise [aspect],” he added.

Glanz noted the beverage industry’s push for self-regulation. “Is the fox guarding the chicken coop?” she asked. She noted the recent pledge in this regard by a partnership between the American Beverage Association, Coca-Cola and other beverage companies, and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation (founded by the American Heart Association and the Clinton Foundation). That pledge is to reduce beverage calories in the American diet by 20% by 2025, through marketing smaller-sized cans and providing consumers low-calorie options including bottled water, among other measures. “Sounds good. We’ll see,” Glanz said.