Investors demand Coke stops interfering in policy, funding junk science
ATLANTA, GA—On the eve of Coke’s first-ever all-virtual annual meeting, the corporation’s role in another global health crisis is facing scrutiny. A new report by Corporate Accountability finds that the Coke-funded International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) is playing an outsized role in shaping national food and nutrition policies from India to Argentina to the United States. Notable among the findings is that more than half of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee—the body that informs both national nutrition policy and how Americans eat and drink—has ties to ILSI.
The findings come on the heels of the world’s largest food and beverage corporation, Nestlé’s, quiet announcement that it had dropped its ILSI membership. Previously, Mars broke with the “shadowy industry group” (as The New York Times called it in a recent exposé) over its production of misleading and self-serving science. The food and beverage industry’s role in stymying public health policy and propagating junk science is also taking on new dimensions during today’s pandemic. The surge of diet-related disease behind one in five deaths annually, is putting hundreds of millions of people at high risk of severe illness from COVID19.
“For decades, Coke, its competitors, and its surrogates like ILSI have trafficked in junk science, co-opted public officials, and bullied advocates like myself to build markets on the backs of working people’s health in ‘emerging markets’ like Colombia,” said Dr. Esperanza Ceron, whose travails with the soda industry have made headlines. Last year, Coke executives refused to allow her to speak from the floor of the shareholders meeting. “But we won’t be silenced. Too much is at stake.”
The report finds that across Latin America, ILSI has a heavy hand in stifling progress to curb obesity, diabetes, and other diet-related diseases. In Argentina, ILSI—which claims not to lobby—offered guidance to the government to update its National Food Composition Database (the country’s primary tool for informing food and nutrition policy). In Mexico, ILSI violated its own code of ethics under one Coke executive, floundered under a second Coke executive, and was ultimately absorbed into a regional ILSI affiliate under the direction of a third Coke executive. In Brazil, ILSI backed research redirecting blame for diet-related disease from junk food and drink to physical inactivity.
The report also chronicles ILSI’s campaign to further expand markets like India, which Coke CEO James Quincy recently announced is fast on its way to becoming the third-largest market for the corporation. There, ILSI partnered with leading government research institutions to produce a study disparaging traditional diets that obfuscates the role of junk food and drink in India’s growing epidemic of diet-related disease.
“It’s time for Coke to put something more on ice than its soft drinks,” said Corporate Accountability Research Director Ashka Naik, a co-author of the report. “Coke is telling investors it cares about public health on the one hand, but funds ILSI to block public health safeguards on the other. Its misleading of investors and consumers is a liability that will only grow.”
A resolution that will be voted on Wednesday calls on Coke to come clean with its shareholders about its public health harms and liabilities. It would require a public, independent audit of how the corporation is contributing to the crisis of diet-related disease, whether through its products, its marketing, its political interference, or junk science. With fossil fuel corporations presently facing lawsuits for their deceit and historic contributions to the climate crisis and Big Tobacco continuing to face similar litigation, Coke’s investors have reason to question the soundness of their investment.
A growing movement is afoot, for one, to tax Coke and other sugar-sweetened beverages and put that tax revenue to work in improving community health, especially in communities with disproportionately high rates of diet-related disease. Like cigarette taxes, these policies are also proven to drive down consumption. Washington, D.C. is only the latest city, to advance such a policy. And only the latest to experience the blowback from Coke’s trade association and other surrogates.
“As a majority minority city, our nation’s capital is a microcosm in regards to the longstanding health disparities and inequities communities of color face,” said Dr. Yolandra Hancock, a pediatrician, obesity specialist, and adjunct professor at George Washington University. “What we don’t need is Coke and the soda industry coming in to block funding from going to the very communities they have ravaged with targeted marketing. We call on corporations like Coke to back off and allow communities agency to make healthier choices.”