Readers of USA Today, the LA Times and Atlantic Monthly might expect that prominent university professors quoted as independent experts on obesity would relay objective information based on the best science. They would be wrong.
Over the past few months, through excellent investigative work, journalists Anahad O’Connor and Candice Choi unmasked a scheme that should look familiar to anyone following health and environmental news: corporations paying front groups and scientists to spin the media and public in order to protect their products.
In this latest example, Coca-Cola–facing slipping sales and increasing pressure to regulate its products that are fueling the nation’s obesity epidemic–launched a new front group led by prominent professors. As O’Connor reported in the New York Times (8/9/15):
Coca-Cola, the world’s largest producer of sugary beverages, is backing a new “science-based” solution to the obesity crisis: To maintain a healthy weight, get more exercise and worry less about cutting calories.
The beverage giant has teamed up with influential scientists who are advancing this message in medical journals, at conferences and through social media. To help the scientists get the word out, Coke has provided financial and logistical support to a new nonprofit organization called the Global Energy Balance Network, which promotes the argument that weight-conscious Americans are overly fixated on how much they eat and drink while not paying enough attention to exercise.
This despite evidence that exercise, while beneficial for other reasons, by itself has minimal impact on weight. But as we’ve seen again and again, facts and science don’t matter when it comes to protecting corporate profits.
In the case of Global Energy Balance Network, Coke funded the group to the tune of $1.5 million and claimed minimal involvement. However, as Choi reported for the Associated Press (11/24/15), internal emails show that Coke executives were actually heavily involved: “They helped pick the group’s leaders, edited its mission statement and suggested articles and videos for its website.” The Times pointed out that “the network’s website, gebn.org, is registered to Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta, and the company is also listed as the site’s administrator.”
The investigation revealed that Coke was also providing substantial funding to the two professors who led the now-collapsed front group: the president James O. Hill and vice president Steven N. Blair.
James O. Hill is a professor of pediatrics and medicine at the University of Colorado and director of their Center for Human Nutrition. According to emails uncovered by AP, Hill wrote privately to a Coca-Cola executive:
I want to help your company avoid the image of being a problem in peoples’ lives and back to being a company that brings important and fun things to them.
In 2014, Coca-Cola gave an “unrestricted monetary gift” of $1 million to the University of Colorado Foundation “for the purposes of funding” the Global Energy Balance Network, according to the Times.
According to AP:
Since 2010, Coke said it gave $550,000 to Hill that was unrelated to the [Global Energy Balance Network] group. A big part of that was research he and others were involved with, but the figure also covers travel expenses and fees for speaking engagements and other work.
Steven N. Blair is a professor at the Arnold School of Public Health, in the departments of exercise science and epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of South Carolina. He announced the Global Energy Balance Network with the following “misleading” claim, according to the Times:
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.
He also received more than $3.5 million in funding from Coke for research projects since 2008, the Times reported.
Go-To Sources for Media
Coca-Cola’s vision for Global Energy Balance Network, AP reported, was for the group to “quickly establish itself as the place the media goes to for comment on any obesity issue.”
The front group was well-positioned to achieve that vision, since professors Hill and Blair were already well established as experts on obesity.
An analysis of media coverage by Gary Ruskin, my co-director at US Right to Know, found 30 news articles quoting Hill or Blair, written after they received funding from Coca-Cola, in which journalists failed to disclose this funding.
The articles appeared in influential outlets, including the New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, USA Today, Boston Globe, Atlantic Monthly, US News & World Report, Newsweek and NPR.
“It’s a very myopic view of how obesity develops, and it offers no real solutions,” was the assessment of James O. Hill, a pediatrics and medicine professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver. Hill said that he objected to the lack of attention to physical activity in the film and that the assessment of caloric sweeteners as the major problem in Americans’ diets was mistaken.
“I’m not arguing that the food environment is unimportant. I’m not arguing sugar is not important,” Hill said. “I think the food industry has some responsibility,” but he believes the food industry and scientists need to join forces to find solutions.
The pattern is typical of Hill’s quotes in the media: comments about the importance of physical activity over diet as the key to weight loss, with no mention of funding from Coca-Cola.
The Coke story is just the latest “Rent-a-Scientist” example of corporations quietly paying professors who appear in the media as independent experts, pushing points of view that happen to benefit the corporations from which they take money.
Earlier this month, a Greenpeace sting operation caught Princeton professor William Happer and Penn State professor emeritus Frank Clemente agreeing to take corporate cash (and conceal the payments) to write papers extolling the benefits of coal and carbon emissions.
That scandal followed the revelation that Wei-Hock Soon, a scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who claims global warming can be explained by variations in the sun’s energy, described his work as “deliverables” for corporate funders, as Justin Gillis and John Schwartz reported in the New York Times (2/21/15)
In September, emails obtained by my group US Right to Know linked Monsanto money to two professors who frequently appear in the media as independent experts on GMOs, as Eric Lipton reported in the New York Times (9/5/15).
A media analysis on that issue found 28 media stories quoting or written by University of Florida professor Kevin Folta or University of Illinois professor emeritus Bruce Chassy after they received Monsanto funding, but without disclosing the funding.
All these cases highlight that reporters need to do a better job researching their sources and disclosing the financial ties between corporations and academics. As Ruskin wrote for US Right to Know (12/14/15):
If a professor takes money from one of these soda companies, that is crucial context for their views on obesity, and journalists disserve their readers by failing to report it. Readers need to know who pays sources to evaluate the legitimacy and biases of these sources.
The net effect of quoting these professors without disclosing their Coca-Cola funding is to unfairly enhance their credibility, while undermining the credibility of public health and consumer advocates.
Stacy Malkan is co-director of US Right to Know, a nonprofit consumer group. She is also the author of Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry.