ATLANTA — A public interest research group stumbled onto a series of emails that deeply embarrassed two of the most important institutions in Atlanta -- Coca-Cola and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The email exchanges raised serious questions about the influence of private industry on public health policy makers.
Channel 2 investigative reporter Richard Belcher learned that physicians and public health experts are virtually in complete agreement that sugary soda is a critical factor in soaring obesity rates.
But the emails uncovered by a public interest group show attempts by Coca-Cola senior staff to build relationships and influence CDC staff and even try to enlist the CDC for help in influencing the World Health Organization’s stance on sugary drinks.
The group that found the emails said it was a chance discovery.
“We came across the, the interactions between CDC and Coke entirely by accident. It was total fluke,” Gary Ruskin said. Ruskin is the co-director of California-based US Right to Know, a public interest group which investigates the food industry. They use the Freedom of Information Act to pry loose vast stores of government records. “There right in the middle of it was this CDC and Coca-Cola thing, and I almost fell out of my chair when I saw it.”
The 2015 emails included exchanges between Alex Malaspina, a former senior vice president at Coke, and Barbara Bowman, CDC's then-director of the Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention, about the proposed crackdown on sugary foods by The World Health Organization.
Malaspina wrote, “We would want WHO to not only consider sugary foods as the only cause of obesity but to consider also the lifestyle changes that have been occurring throughout the universe.”
And this: “Dear Barbara: Any ideas how to have a conversation with WHO? Now, they do not want to work with industry. Who finds all the new drugs? Not WHO, but industry. She is influenced by the Chinese Govt and is against US. Something must be done."
Just hours later, Bowman responded by offering suggestions of individuals that may have close ties to WHO: “Am wondering wether [sic] anyone with ILSI China, perhaps Madame Chen, might have ideas…Or Gates and Bloomberg people, many have close connections with the regional WHO regional offices…”
Ruskin said he discovered efforts to arrange dinners and meetings to essentially lobby the CDC in a wide variety of ways. He said he also followed the money.
“Coca-Cola had actually given more than a million dollars to the CDC foundation, so there was real money involved, too,” Ruskin said.
Ruskin said organizations like the CDC have a clear responsibility to the public.
“If it's not ok for the tobacco industry to lobby the CDC and to cultivate the CDC why should it be ok for Coca-Cola to get on the inside and get favors from the CDC?” Ruskin asked. “The CDC is supposed to protect the public health of Americans, not protect the finances of Coca-Cola.”
The CDC has a policy governing its partnership with private entities, which states not to engage when "the potential partner represents any product that exacerbates morbidity or mortality when used as directed."
“I think any organization that is responsible for public health messages, that may be, you know, unduly influenced by someone who would like to have more added-sugar beverage in the diet, that would certainly be a concern,” said pediatrician Dr. Samira Brown with Piedmont Physicians Covington.
Brown said evidence of the dangers of excess sugar is compelling but not well enough appreciated, especially in lower income communities.
“I think there is a lack of enough information out there about how dangerous added sugars can be in the diet,” Newton County pediatrician Dr. Samira Brown said. “There are some teens that will tell you that every single day, they see some advertisement for this without that acknowledgement that it is actually dangerous to their health.”
She said public health policy makers have an obligation to inform the public, influence free.
Bowman departed the CDC soon after the emails were discovered. Malaspina continues to advocate for the interests of the beverage industry through a nonprofit research group that has strong ties to Coca-Cola. Belcher requested an interview with Coca-Cola. They did not go on camera but sent this statement:
"These emails go back a number of years and pre-date a commitment we made in 2015 to disclose our funding for well-being scientific research and partnerships publicly on our website. We continue to update this report every six months. In 2016, we also adopted Guiding Principles that define our approach to health and well-being oriented research and engagement with third parties.
“Since that time, we’ve continued our journey to be a more helpful and effective partner in efforts to address the serious problem of obesity around the world. We’ve listened and learned from the public health community, our customers, associates and our consumers to understand the most appropriate role we can play to support the fight against obesity in a way that is credible, transparent, and beneficial for everyone. Today our focus is on reducing sugar in our drinks and promoting more no- and low-sugar options as we work to support the World Health Organization’s recommendation that people limit added sugars to 10 percent of their daily caloric intake."
The CDC also sent Belcher the following statement:
"The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) have one overriding goal: to protect the health of all Americans. At the core of this mission is information sharing – not just health information and disease study results, but information CDC gathers as part of a continuous process of putting information into action.
As a science-based agency funded by U.S. taxpayers, CDC is committed to openness and accountability. CDC’s goal is to have multiple, integrated processes that are sound, transparent, and align with CDC’s policies. Our responsibility is to be good stewards of the work CDC is entrusted to perform by the American people.
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