Coca-Cola is bankrolling a campaign to focus the discussion about obesity in Australia on exercise and away from diet as the solution to the health epidemic.
Last August, Coca-Cola’s global boss promised to publish all financing of health groups and research globally after revelations of its activities by the The New York Times.
Within six weeks it disclosed that the soft drink giant had given $US21.8 million ($30.5 million) to fund research and $US96.8 million to fund what it calls “health and wellbeing partnerships” in the United States.
More than six months later, no such disclosures have been made in Australia.
But the company’s US disclosure has exposed a glimpse of how it has supported health groups and research in Australia.
It shows Coca-Cola made an “unrestricted gift” of $US100,000 ($140,000 at current exchange rates) to Jeff Coombes, professor at the University of Queensland’s school of human movement and nutrition sciences, in 2014 to support research on using exercise to treat metabolic syndrome – a collection of disorders that include obesity and high blood pressure.
The $140,000 gift does not appear on Dr Coombes’ university grants page but he said it was disclosed on relevant research papers and at the start of all academic presentations. He insisted Coca-Cola had no input or control over his research.
“A quick look at my recent publications would provide several examples where the outcomes did not support the funding industry’s products,” he said.
Dr Coombes, who approached Coca-Cola to ask for financial support, said there had been a clear message from government that researchers needed to obtain more funding from industry.
“Corporate philanthropy has become more important as less and less taxpayer money has been allocated in this area,” he said.
Dr Coombes was president of Exercise and Sports Science Australia (ESSA) from 2006 and 2011, during which time the body established an Australian arm of Exercise is Medicine – a global health group which has received extensive support from Coca-Cola.
EIM’s encourages doctors to prescribe physical activity as treatment for obesity, while its educational material makes scant mention of diet.
ESSA chief executive Anita Hobson-Powell said Coca-Cola South Pacific covered “about half” of the money needed to establish and run EIM Australia from 2010 to 2013, during which time its involvement was disclosed on all EIM material.
‘No compelling evidence’
EIM Australia was launched in 2011 at the General Practitioner Conference and Exhibition in Sydney with a presentation by EIM global executive council member Steven Blair, who as vice-president of the Global Energy Balance Network was involved in a funding controversy that engulfed Coca-Cola in the US last year.
Dr Blair, who has said there is “virtually no compelling evidence” that fast food and sugary drinks caused obesity, has received more than $US3.5 million ($4.9 million) from Coca-Cola since 2008, according to .
Mrs Hobson-Powell said ESSA was not aware of Dr Blair’s relationship with Coca-Cola at the time.
Dr Blair was most recently in Australia in October, as keynote speaker at an Australian Physiotherapy Association conference where he claimed that undue focus on diet could lead to flawed strategies for tackling obesity.
He presented a similar argument during a guest lecture to students at the University of Queensland’s faculty of Health and Behavioural Sciences.
Timothy Olds, a professor of health sciences at the University of South Australia, also appears on Coca-Cola’s funding list as one of 12 scientists who received a combined $US6.29 million ($8.8 million) grant to conduct an international study into the relationship between lifestyle and environment and childhood obesity.
Dr Olds said the University of South Australia received about $400,000 for his part in the research, which discloses Coca-Cola’s involvement.
A spokeswoman for Coca-Cola South Pacific said it would reveal all its Australian grants and gifts “in the coming months”.
“This is a lengthy process as we are currently compiling details of the projects we have supported dating back to 2010,” she said.
The spokeswoman said CCSP was “proud to support Exercise is Medicine Australia from 2010-2013. The sponsorship agreement with Exercise & Sports Science Australia provided funding for ESSA to resource an EIM Australia project development officer whose responsibility it was to set up and implement the program in Australia.
“Coca-Cola South Pacific funding stopped in 2013 because the project was complete.”
The commitment to disclose global funding came in August after revealed Coca-Cola had been secretly funding a health group that focused on physical exercise to combat obesity rather than on the need to reduce sugar in diet.
Facing accusations of “astroturfing” opinion, Coca-Cola pulled its funding from the Global Energy Balance Network in the US, forcing its closure.
In an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, Coca-Cola’s global boss promised to disclose all financing of health groups and research globally.
Health advocates believe the funding revelations – if and when they come – have the potential to shock and embarrass health organisations here.
Marion Nestle is at the University of Sydney as a Charles Perkins Centre Professorial Visiting Fellow from New York University. She runs a widely read blog, Food Politics, and Forbes Magazine ranked her as the world’s second most influential “foodie”.
She told Fairfax Media: “Coca-Cola promptly delivered on its transparency promise in the US with riveting results. Many health organisations were surprised to learn they were funded by a sugary drink company.
“I’m hoping Australian health organisations will ask the company to provide the best list it can as soon as possible. You will find it fascinating.”
Stop the ‘subterfuge’
Fairfax Media can reveal that the Coca-Cola Foundation in the US, which is the company’s philanthropic arm, donated $US1.1 million ($1.5 million) to organisations in Australia in 2015. This is on top of any money donated by the Coca-Cola Foundation Australia, which is jointly supported by Coca-Cola South Pacific and Coca-Cola Amatil.
Last year $US75,000 went to the Australian Paralympic Committee; $US300,000 went to recycling the projects of Keep Australia Beautiful and Landcare; $US500,000 went to a WWF program on the Great Barrier Reef; and $US225,000 went to programs supporting Indigenous youth and “youth at-risk”, including funding to the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience.
The Coca-Cola Foundation Australia’s most recent disclosure of funding recipients on its website is from three years ago.
In her book Soda Politics, Professor Nestle dedicates three chapters explaining how Coca-Cola and PepsiCo target ethnic minorities and the poor in their marketing campaigns and through sponsorship of minority organisations.
The Australian Consumers’ Association, which publishes Choice, has called on Coca-Cola to release the details of organisations it funds through so-called “astroturfing” arrangements in Australia.
A spokesman for Choice said: “Choice believes that any company that would sink to the depths of funding an organisation like the Global Energy Balance Network in the first place can’t be trusted to cease and desist such subterfuge.
“If Coca-Cola is serious about being transparent and contributing to global health efforts, it should stop funding and supporting other similar groups, such as the Beverage Institute for Health and Wellness.”
Professor Marion Nestle will speak about her book Soda Politics