From Coca-Cola, a Reminder About Corporate Philanthropy's Dark Side

We've written a lot lately about the good things happening in corporate philanthropy, with funders backing more innovative work and giving greater attention to helping poor people at home and abroad. But we've also kept a close eye on the less savory side of corporate givinglike the hypocrisy of Walmart donating to anti-hunger groups while many of its workers rely on food stamps, or the unseemly irony of banks that once engaged in predatory lending giving grants on housing. 

Related: Tricky Questions on Corporate Philanthropy at Walmart and Beyond

Now comes a story that puts corporate philanthropy in the worst possible light—about how the Coca-Cola Company has funded public health research that promotes misleading ideas about obesity, in ways that just happen to be helpful to its bottom line. 

Before saying more about this story, which was on the front page of the New York Times yesterday, let’s get one thing out of the way: The Coca-Cola Company, through its philanthropic foundations, has done a lot of good things—which we’ve reported on at length here at Inside Philanthropy. In particular, it's backing important work to combat poverty in Africa and other places. As one of the most influential corporations in the world, with an extremely loyal consumer base, Coca-Cola has strived to be a socially responsible company. 

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But what happens when science catches up to you and the very basis of your business is deemed a threat to your consumers? Well, if you’re Coca-Cola, you simply create your own science.

As the largest producer of sugary beverages in the world, Coca-Cola has found itself at the center of a public health crisis. By and large, the broader scientific community agrees that Coca-Cola products are a contributing factor to a growing obesity epidemic. With sales slipping and pressure mounting from public health experts to limit consumption of soft drinks, Coca-Cola has been feeling the heat and, according to the Times, pouring money into a crisis management campaign dressed up as science and calling itself the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN).

The network describes itself as a “premier world-wide organization led by scientists working on the development and application of an evidence-based approach to ending obesity.” Funded almost entirely by Coca-Cola, GEBN was founded on the premise that Americans are too concerned with what they consume and not concerned enough with being active.

On the surface, it sounds reasonable enough. Exercise is a good thing, and it would be hard to fault Coca-Cola for wanting to protect its business interests by contributing to any new school of thought that may help in doing so. But digging a little deeper into the GEBN, it starts to feel less like a legitimate attempt to find solutions for improving public health and more like, well, high-brow propaganda. 

In a video introducing the group, GEBN Vice President Steven N. Blair denies that there is evidence linking sugary drinks to obesity. Instead, the exercise scientist claims that physical exercise can offset poor nutrition and prevent obesity. But as the Times reports:

Health experts say this message is misleading and part of an effort by Coke to deflect criticism about the role sugary drinks have played in the spread of obesity and type 2 diabetes. They contend that the company is using the new group to convince the public that physical activity can offset a bad diet despite evidence that exercise has only minimal impact on weight compared with what people consume.

In turn, the funding of GEBN is part of a broader story about industry-backed research on health and obesity. As the Times writes:

Funding from the food industry is not uncommon in scientific research. But studies suggest that the funds tend to bias findings. A recent analysis of beverage studies published in the journal PLOS Medicine found that those funded by Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, the American Beverage Association and the sugar industry were five times more likely to find no link between sugary drinks and weight gain than studies whose authors reported no financial conflicts.

If all this sounds vaguely familiar, it's because funding junk science is a strategy that corporations have often used to rebut critics, mislead the public, and defend their profits. Tobacco companies have famously done it, and so has the fossil fuel industry—pumping millions into "climate denial" research to slow the push to regulate carbon emissions. Now Coca-Cola is resorting to this familiar playbook. Through its philanthropic support of GEBN, it's planting seeds of doubt in consumers' minds about the negative health effects associated with its products.

That the company is also getting a tax break for this effort underscores a growing problem in philanthropy that we've flagged often at IP: The perverse ways that tax-exempt charitable giving can be used to advance a narrow and self-interested agenda. When science can be bought and sold in an attempt to deflect harm, and taxpayers help pick up the tab, something is definitely wrong with how we regulate philanthropy in the United States.

Corporate philanthropy can be as noble as it is complicated. And when major corporations like Coca-Cola have money to spend and an image to protect, it’s no surprise that the line between giving and maneuvering becomes blurred. Corporations should absolutely continue to pursue philanthropic initiatives in the public interest and we should continue to expect that they do—but let's never forget: We need to watch this giving like a hawk.