Coca-Cola’s secret influence on medical and science journalistsBMJ 2017; 357 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.j1638 (Published 05 April 2017) Cite this as: BMJ 2017;357:j1638
All rapid responses
Drs. Peters and Hill were contacted multiple times over several days to explain their behavior documented in the e-mails used to write this story. They chose to not respond to those requests. Instead, they sent a response, after publication, and made a series of unsupported allegations about the author and about The BMJ.
First, they state, “We are now taking even greater steps to be upfront and clear about our funding sources . . . .” Readers should note that, in 2015, the Denver Post reported that Coca-Cola paid Dr. Hill “$550,000 starting in 2010 for various purposes.”(1)
A spokesperson for Coca-Cola told the Denver Post: “This reflects work with Dr. Hill prior to the establishment of Global Energy Balance Network. These funds paid for honoraria, travel, education activities and research on weight management.” The newspaper also reported that Dr. Hill gave nine lectures during his reported trip to Australia and New Zealand, which included a presentation at a university, and that Coca-Cola paid for his wife’s travels in lieu of an honorarium.
While working as a professional staffer to the United States Senate, I first drafted and helped to pass our country’s latest funding transparency law called the Physician Payments Sunshine Act.(2) I also worked with the National Institutes of Health to tighten disclosure requirements of outside income for recipients of federal grants.(3) I am thus very well aware that reporting requirements of competing interests vary widely across institutions and journals. However, I think it is reasonable to expect Drs. Peters and Hill to divulge this information, which they should have done in the competing interests disclosure that came at the bottom of their response. Unfortunately, this information was not disclosed.
Second, the professors charge that I did not mention that the conferences were highly rated by journalists, and the professors also provide a Web link for readers to review journalists’ evaluations of the 2014 conference.(4) I direct readers to comments by reporter Patricia Guadalupe, who I interviewed but who I did not quote in the story.
“The fact that the director of the center receives an honorarium from McDonalds, and that wasn't disclosed until we asked about it was a bit shady,” Ms. Guadalupe wrote in her evaluation. “I thought it was odd that there were soft drinks in the vending machines of a health center and [that those products were] just Coca Cola products and now it makes sense.”
Finally, readers should note that the only apparent “journalist” brought in as an instructor for the 2014 conference was Trevor Butterworth. In 2009, Meg Kissinger and Susanne Rust wrote an award-winning series for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that identified Trevor Butterworth as a cog in the corporate machinery to counter a ban of bisphenol A, a chemical in plastic products.(5) Both Kissinger and Rust now teach journalism at Columbia University.
I also urge readers to Google search Trevor Butterworth to read the numerous stories he has written defending the soda industry in multiple media outlets, and I also direct readers to a couple of e-mails, regarding Mr. Butterworth, that were revealed in public information requests. Before the 2014 journalism conference, Mr. Butterworth wrote an article criticizing a study in PLOS Medicine that examined the conflicts of interests and reporting bias in studies associating sugary beverages and weight gain.(6) A Coca-Cola official e-mailed a link of Mr. Butterworth’s story to Drs. Peters and Hill, identifying Mr. Butterworth as “[o]ur friend.”(7)
And after the 2014 journalism conference, this same Coca-Cola official began discussing with these same academics about whether Mr. Butterworth should be placed on the board of the Global Energy Balance Network.(8) Additionally, a story published last year in The Intercept examined Mr. Butterworth’s continued corporate advocacy, including his current ties to Sense About Science, a British non-profit that makes dubious claims about the safety of industry products.(9)
It seems odd that, of all the journalists available to teach reporters about journalism, Mr. Butterworth was the one chosen for this Coca-Cola sponsored conference.
Competing interests: No competing interests
We are extremely disappointed by the lack of facts and truth in freelance reporter Mr. Thacker’s recent article in The BMJ.
The report relied upon selective use of “evidence” and contained numerous errors of omission to manufacture a conspiracy theory about events that took place many years ago.
The article was correct in that we did accept some funding from Coca-Cola, and others, to put on educational events for reporters. We did so with the understanding that the drink-maker would have absolutely no say in the program content. Funding by Coke or any other private business has never influenced our research or educational activities. We also agree with Mr. Thacker that comprehensive disclosure of funding sources is important. We are now taking even greater steps to be upfront and clear about our funding sources, to ensure that the focus is on quality science and education.
Mr. Thacker introduces his “secret influence” theory by insinuating that we promote physical inactivity as the cause of obesity and downplay diet, which would help minimize any role of sugary beverages. Despite this foundational allegation, he provides no factual evidence of this. We have authored hundreds of peer reviewed research papers, reviews and chapters on obesity and have never promoted such a message. There is clear scientific evidence showing that sugar-sweetened beverages and many other diet factors contribute to obesity. There is also clear evidence that sedentariness, lack of physical activity, and poor sleep patterns contribute to obesity. These workshops addressed a broad range of lifestyle and other factors that contribute to obesity, including diet, exercise, sleep, stress, and the environment.
Mr. Thacker’s carefully constructed story line suggests that Coke initiated this plot to influence journalists to write stories favorable to Coke in order to take pressure off the sugary drink business. In fact, the idea for these conferences came from us. One mission of our NIH-funded Nutrition Obesity Research Center (NORC) is to educate the public about obesity. Because health reporters frequently contact us seeking information and comment about obesity and its many causes, treatments and strategies for prevention, we saw the need to offer journalists a more in depth look at obesity. The National Press Foundation was enthusiastic when we approached them about the concept and, when asked, journalists also said this was a great idea. The idea of engaging journalists in a more in depth forum to talk about a global problem was modeled after the annual journalism events (Age Boom Academy) begun in 2000, hosted by the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center. Their purpose was to educate journalists about how the increase in average lifespan presents a multi-faceted problem with health, social and economic implications. Obesity represents a similar multi-faceted problem.
Mr. Thacker implied that content delivered at the conferences was biased in favor of Coca Cola, yet, he did not provide any support for this contention. He cited a panel including executives from Coke and McDonalds as evidence of bias, although reporters had actually asked to have such company representatives on the program since they normally do not get access to such high-level executives. As evidence that these events worked to influence reporters’ stories he cites an article by a CNN reporter who attended one of the events, titled “Soda makers want to cut calories, but is diet really better?” The article actually emphases the role of sugary sodas in contributing to obesity and discusses whether diet sodas can help with the obesity epidemic, concluding that the jury is still out and there are persistent doubts about their effectiveness.
The CNN report made no mention of physical activity and provided no favorable portrayal of Coke or its products. It is difficult to see how this article is evidence of the alleged conspiracy having its intended effect. Mr. Thacker also suggests there was an article from one of the journalists saying that physical activity was more important than diet in obesity. He did not refer this article because, to our knowledge, there was no such article. More than 40 journalists attended the events we hosted and dozens of stories appeared after each, yet he rests his case on one published article that is actually not favorable to Coke and another for which there is no reference. It would seem that Mr. Thacker’s serious allegations of “secret influence” must somehow be supported by, “secret evidence”.
The one reporter cited by Mr. Thacker as having a concern about the partial funding by Coke actually said in her review of the program: “I would have appreciated some more clarity up front on the funding of the program. I don't know that it would have made a difference for me that it was funded by Coca-Cola, but I think some more transparency on that would have been good.” She added: “Overall, it was also very well organized (not easy!!), and was a great introduction for me to the current science on obesity and the policy debates. It gave me good ideas for stories, and lots of avenues for follow-up.”
Also not mentioned in Mr. Thacker’s article is the fact that all three conferences were highly rated by journalists based on evaluations administered by the National Press Foundation. The report of the 2014 meeting was released through a Freedom of Information Act request and can be seen here (1). Reports of the earlier meetings are available by request (2), so anyone can judge whether they paint a picture of scientific bias aimed at convincing journalists that sugary soda is not a problem for obesity, or if the evidence is more consistent with the National Press Foundation delivering outstanding workshops that helped journalists better understand the multi-faceted problem of obesity.
It seems that articles like this are no longer investigative journalism at its best and are truly story-telling for the purpose of supporting a personal point of view, or the point of view by advocates pushing a specific cause. I would only hope that readers and editors of BMJ would look at this with a critical eye, especially as medical professionals and scientists, and challenge the “evidence” used to support the author’s opinion.
Competing interests: Drs. Peters and Hill worked with the National Press Foundation to host the journalist conferences referenced in the article. Funding for these conferences came from unrestricted educational gifts from a variety of donors, including the Coca-Cola Company.
During the late 70s, the Central Government banned Coca cola in India. It created an unexpected problem for parents particularly those on visit to India. Children who drink it regularly like it so much that they prefer it to water or other drinks. Some parents ignore the possible adverse effect of such drinks as they think that it is more hygienic and pure compared to normally available drinking water. This feeling was prevalent many years before bottled water became popular in India. I knew of cases in which parents visiting India from the USA carried a couple of two litre containers of the favourite drink for the rationed use of their young children.
Trying to manipulate public perception by means fair or foul is a tactic used by all, particularly the consumer industry. The fact that journalists and academic specialists become willing partners in the game is regrettable. It is also not fair to treat journalists and teachers as exclusive agents. The fact that some of the most famous cricketers and sportsmen also succumb to this type of lucre is equally condemnable. Their advertisement revenue is reportedly millions of rupees. Success of colas of various kinds marks the frailties of humans; any amount of counter criticism and cajoling is unlikely to be effective in keeping them away from their daily intakes.
Competing interests: No competing interests
Cola is an addictive stimulant and social lubricant that tricks and traps us by creating the fleeting euphoria of hydration and energy, but the sustained sickness of dehydration and apathy. The euphoria of hydration and energy, and the sickness of dehydration and apathy, are opposites that reinforce each other: the euphoria blinds us to the sickness, and the sickness makes us crave the euphoria. Perversely but predictably, cola creates, aggravates, and perpetuates the very sickness of dehydration and apathy that it falsely seems to cure, thus placing some popular beverages in a bad light.
Competing interests: No competing interests