US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director, Dr Barbara Bowman – in charge of Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention division – has been caught exchanging emails with a former beverage industry member, providing guidance on how to dodge incriminating actions by the World Health Organization (WHO). The emails were recently obtained through the Freedom of Information Act published by US Right to Know.
It’s surprising that the influence of International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), criticized for being the front-group for Coca-Cola, extends to US officials in the CDC, particularly to those responsible for providing public health leadership. In a series of e-mails, Alex Malaspina, former Coca Cola Scientific and Regulatory Affairs leader and founder of the Coca Cola and industry-funded International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) has been revealed to be corresponding with a CDC director regarding the evasion of WHO laws. The director in question, Dr Bowman, currently works in the prevention and management of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and stroke.
The emails, revealing the closely-knit interactions between CDC and Big Soda officials, were first reported in an exposé by Huffington Post. In the emails, Bowman was encouraging Malaspina to contact people at the WHO with political influence.
“Any ideas how we can have a conversation with WHO?”, said Malaspina in an email to Bowman on June 26, 2015. “In summary I am suggesting that collectively we must find a way to start a dialogue with Dr Chen [sic]. If not, she will continue to blast us with significant negative consequences on a global basis. This threat to our business is serious.”
Shockingly, Bowman, a public health official ethically responsible for ensuring the welfare of the American population, was happy to help out a corporation implicated in the decline of US health.
“[I] Am wondering whether anyone with ILSI China, perhaps Madame Chen, might have ideas. Another thought, perhaps someone with connections to the PEPFAR program,” said Bowman in reply to Malaspina. “Or Gates and Bloomberg people, many have close connections with the WHO regional offices.”
In another email on June 27, 2015 Malaspina thanked Bowman, saying, “You gave me some very good leads,” and mentioned the plan of International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) to focus more on lifestyle changes and leave sugary drinks out of the obesity debate. Malaspina also asked Bowman to meet, saying, “let us have dinner soon.”
Also tagged in both email threads were Coca-Cola Chief Public Affairs and Communications Officer Clyde Tuggle along with Coca-Cola Chief Technical Officer Ed Hays.
Many health experts criticized the unseemliness of the situation, where a US health official was in a frank relationship with a veteran Coca-Cola executive. The most notable criticism comes from Marion Nestle, author of the book Soda Politics, and professor at New York University (NYU):
“These emails suggest that ILSI, Coca-Cola, and researchers funded by Coca-Cola have an ‘in’ with a prominent CDC official,” Nestle said. “The invitation to dinner suggests a cozy relationship… This appearance of conflict of interest is precisely why policies for engagement with industry are needed for federal officials.”
WHO previously used to work in collaboration with ILSI for years. However, in 2003, a report published in The Guardian by a WHO consultant disclosed how ILSI had been infiltrating and influencing the work and research at WHO and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to their own benefits. Consequently, WHO eventually started severing its ties with ILSI.
The increase in public awareness about sugary drinks and their role in causing obesity has put Big Soda Corporations in a tight spot. In 2014, Mexico became the first country in the world to exercise a soda tax after research linked the rise of obesity in their population to soda consumption.
Adults who drink at least one glass of sugar sweetened soda have a 27% higher chance of being overweight or obese, along with a 26% greater chance of contracting type II diabetes. In the US from 1997 to 2003, the caloric intake of the American children doubled with 13% of the calories coming from only drinking sugar-sweetened sodas or beverages. One-fifth of the weight gain in the US population from 1977 to 2007 was caused by drinking sodas.
In March 2015, WHO sugar guidelines endorsed restricting sugary soda consumption. Subsequently in June 2015, WHO Director General Margaret Chan announced soft drink consumption as being one of the main reasons behind child obesity around the globe.
At the same time in the US, Philadelphia decided to impose a “soda tax”, while San Francisco passed a law making warning labels compulsory on sodas, to discourage beverage consumption among the younger generation. All these anti-soda movements greatly reduced the billions of dollar sales of companies such as Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. Understandably, large soda chains are fighting the wave of change against their products.
Since sodas have been blamed for their role in the global obesity crisis, large-scale soda manufacturers have started using elaborate and expensive campaigns to divert focus. Such corporate social responsibility (CSR) campaigns are being used to boost the companies’ humanitarian work and experts have slammed it as a public relations strategy which has an “innocence by association” ideology, meaning large corporations link themselves with good causes to divert attention from their negative products.
For example, in 2010 PepsiCo did not advertise at the Super bowl and instead launched their Pepsi Refresh Project. The Pepsi Refresh Project is a marketing campaign which highlights PepsiCo’s efforts in community-based projects. Similarly, Coca-Cola launched their ‘Live Positively’ campaign which preaches about healthy lifestyle along with the companies’ philanthropic and sustainability work. To an unaware mind, the dichotomy of the situation may remain elusive but if we look closely, the irony in preaching about a healthy lifestyle while selling a product which is the epitome of an unhealthy lifestyle, can be mind-boggling.