Coca-Cola’s secret influence on medical and science journalists

BMJ 2017; 357 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.j1638 (Published 05 April 2017) Cite this as: BMJ 2017;357:j1638

Author's reply

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.

(1) http://www.denverpost.com/2015/12/26/cu-nutrition-expert-accepts-550000-...

(2) https://hbr.org/2014/12/consumers-deserve-to-know-whos-funding-health-re...

(3) https://ethics.harvard.edu/blog/slow-pace-success-do-something-congress

(4) https://drjameshill.files.wordpress.com/2017/04/final-report-obesity-201...

(5) http://archive.jsonline.com/watchdog/watchdogreports/54195297.html

(6) https://hbr.org/2014/03/when-research-should-come-with-a-warning-label

(7) https://usrtk.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/GEBN-Butterworth-march-2014...

(8) https://usrtk.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/GEBN-Butterworth-Nov-2014.pdf

(9) https://theintercept.com/2016/11/15/how-self-appointed-guardians-of-soun...

Competing interests: No competing interests

18 April 2017
Paul Thacker
Madrid, Spain