WASHINGTON – How accurate were conflict of interest disclosures in at least 40 childhood obesity studies funded by The Coca-Cola Company? Not so accurate, according to a paper published in the Journal of Public Health Policy that analyzed studies from the International Study of Childhood Obesity, Lifestyle and the Environment (ISCOLE), funded with a $6.4 million grant from Coca-Cola.
The ISCOLE study found that physical inactivity is a key predictor for childhood obesity. Coca-Cola appears to have financed and promoted research tying childhood obesity to causes other than soda consumption.
For 24 of the ISCOLE studies, the COI disclosures report this, or a close variant: “ISCOLE is funded by The Coca-Cola Company. The study sponsor has no role in study design, data collection, analysis, conclusions or publications. The only sponsor requirement was that the study be global in nature.”
However, a Freedom of Information Act request by U.S. Right to Know, a food industry watchdog group, uncovered evidence suggesting that Coca-Cola influenced the studies’ design, raising questions about corporate influence and truthfulness in the Coke-funded papers.
“It appears that many of the ISCOLE scientists did not declare the full extent of Coca-Cola’s involvement in their childhood obesity studies,” said Gary Ruskin, co-director of U.S. Right to Know. “This raises questions not only about these Coke-funded studies, but also more generally about the accuracy of conflict of interest disclosures in other scientific studies funded by corporations.”
“What these emails reveal is how complex conflicts of interest are and how poorly they are currently managed,” said David Stuckler, Professor at the Research Centre Dondena, at Bocconi University. “There is a danger that vested interests such as Coca-Cola pollute the scientific literature with research serving a hidden agenda.”
“In recent years, large corporations have been seeking to minimize concerns about conflicts of interest in the research they fund,” said Martin McKee, Professor of European Public Health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. A recent example is the Brussels Declaration, which said “commercial conflicts of interests are fairly easy to deal with if they are properly declared”. “As our paper shows, the situation is actually much more complicated and there is a need for considerable caution,” McKee said.
Regarding the ISCOLE emails obtained by FOIA, the Journal of Public Health Policy paper reports:
The emails suggest that the researchers did consult and include Coca-Cola representatives in making strategic decisions about study design. In the early stages of planning the study, for example, the parties debated which and how many countries are to be included. [Coca-Cola Chief Science and Health Officer Rhona] Applebaum emailed [ISCOLE Co-Principal Investigator Peter] Katzmarzyk on 26 March 2012 saying: “Ok—so with Russia and Finland we are at 13? Or no Finland and at 12. Seriously–our CEO hates the #13”…. She continued, “Serious about this 13 business. We have no FL [floor?] 13 at Coke”. Applebaum asked Katzmarzyk: “What other country should we look at?”, to which he responded, “We should talk about Russia as well—do you have contacts there already?”
The Journal of Public Health Policy paper was authored by David Stuckler, Professor at the Research Centre Dondena, Bocconi University, Milan, Italy; Martin McKee, Professor of European Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London, UK; and Gary Ruskin, co-director of U.S. Right to Know, in Oakland, California.