News

Coca-Cola funded group set up to promote “energy balance” is disbanded

BMJ 2015; 351 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.h6590 (Published 04 December 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;351:h6590
  1. Zosia Kmietowicz
  1. 1The BMJ

A group that was set up to promote debate about “energy balance” in an effort to combat obesity has closed down after it was found that its funder, Coca-Cola, had a hand in some of its decision making.

The Global Energy Balance Network was set up in 2014, but on 30 November a message on the network’s website (https://gebn.org) said that it was “discontinuing operations due to resource limitations,” with immediate effect.

James O Hill, professor of pediatrics and medicine and director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado and who led the group, told The BMJ that a $1m (£0.7m; €0.9m) “gift from Coca-Cola Co to establish and support GEBN” had been returned on 6 November because it was “distracting from the important work of the organization.”

The group could not continue because “other sources of funding were not sufficient to allow us to accomplish our goals,” he added.

The University of South Carolina, which was also part of the group, has said that it is keeping the $500 000 it received from Coca-Cola for the group, saying that there had been no misuse of funds.

Last week the Associated Press reported that emails between Hill and Rhona Applebaum, chief scientist and health officer at Coca-Cola, showed that the sponsor had helped select who would run the network, made changes to its mission statement, and influenced the website’s content.

Critics have attacked Coca-Cola for promoting the idea that obesity is a result of reduced exercise and not increased energy intake.

The email exchanges are reported to have shown that Coca-Cola wanted to establish the group “as the place the media goes to for comment on any obesity issue.”

Applebaum, who had been with Coca-Cola for more than 11 years, left the company on 4 November. Coca-Cola told The BMJ that it was no longer involved with the Global Energy Balance Network.

A spokesperson for Coca-Cola said that Applebaum had decided to resign in early October, two months after the New York Times reported that the network was funded by the company.

Muhtar Kent, Coca-Cola’s chief executive, is reported in the press as saying, “It has become clear to us that there was not a sufficient level of transparency with regard to the company’s involvement with the Global Energy Balance Network.”

Hill told The BMJ that Coca-Cola did have input into the structure of the network. In an email he said, “They suggested some wording changes in the GEBN mission statement which was ‘to connect and engage multi-disciplinary scientists and other experts around the globe dedicated to applying and advancing the science of energy balance to achieve healthier living’ and encouraged the group to consider diversity and global representation. They did not direct GEBN’s activities.”

He added, “GEBN believes that both diet and physical activity are important in countering the worldwide epidemic of obesity. Any strategy to reduce obesity must involve diet and physical activity to be successful.”

Neither Steven Blair, a professor at the University of South Carolina and vice president of the network, nor the university responded to The BMJ’s requests for a comment.

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2015;351:h6590

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