By sponsoring international public health conferences, the Coca-Cola company was able to use its influence to deflect blame on Coke and its other high-sugar products for the obesity epidemic.
This conclusion was reached by the investigative public health group, U.S. Right To Know (USRTK). USRTK obtained, via state public records, documents from previous years International Congresses of Physical Activity and Public Health (ICPAPH).
Based on these documents, a study was published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. The study concluded, “Coke deliberated with its sponsored researchers on topics to present at ICPAPH, despite publicly claiming otherwise, in an effort to shift blame for the rising incidence of obesity and diet-related diseases away from its products onto physical activity and individual choice.”
Because Coke used the conferences to develop relationships with public health leaders in order to craft Coke’s messaging, USRTK executive director, Gary Ruskin said, “This unseemly conscription of public health conferences to serve up Coca-Cola’s messaging erodes trust in the cause of public health.” Ruskin added, “It’s long past time for the public health community to transform itself into something that can’t be bought or rented.”
Rhona Applebaum, former Coca-Cola chief science and health officer, according to the study, sought to divert attention from sugar’s impact on the obesity and diabetes epidemic. Instead, Applebaum shifted the focus on “individual behavior and motivation.”
While this may seem like a sensible policy, laying the blame on individual lifestyle choices may serve to shield corporations like Coca-Cola from lawsuits.
Likewise, taxes on sugary drinks as well as restrictions on advertising and marketing would be more difficult to implement if the onus lies on individual behavior rather than corporate behavior.
The study is titled, “How Coca-Cola Shaped the International Congress on Physical Activity and Public Health,” and is an analysis of email exchanges that occurred between 2012 and 2014. The study was co-authored by Ruskin, and Deakin University’s Benjamin Wood, M.D. and Associate Professor Gary Sacks.
The co-authors argue that as the tobacco industry has been purged from industry sponsorship, so, too, should the food and beverage industry.