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Public Health and Corporate Funding of Scientific Research

In August, the New York Times reported that Coca-Cola was funding an organization called the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN), which promoted scientific research on obesity.  The organization was accused of emphasizing the need for exercise, shifting the blame for obesity away from sugary beverages.  Coke’s CEO, Muhtar Kent, responded with an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, pledging to ‘do better.’  In that piece, he noted that in addition to disclosing all of its spending relating to addressing obesity, the company would “engage leading experts to explore future opportunities for our academic research investment and health and well-being initiatives,” led by Sandy Douglas, President of Coca-Cola North America.  Coke’s subsequent disclosures led to a series of articles in the Times.  Ultimately, GEBN was shut down and Coke’s head scientist took an early retirement. 

We have had constructive engagements with Coca-Cola on a wide range of issues, for many years, including human rights, water use and recycling.  On the basis of this relationship, we were invited to participate in a one-on-one call with Mr. Douglas, as part of his expert “listening tour.”  We discussed what he has learned so far from the public health experts he’s met with, Coke’s historical response to the problem of obesity and some changes they will be making.  We look forward to continuing this dialogue.

Investors, companies and the general public have a strong interest in maintaining the integrity of scientific research.  We are therefore encouraging companies that fund research to fully disclose these expenditures.  In addition to Coca-Cola, we have also opened dialogue with Pepsi to discuss its approach to scientific funding, and to encourage greater transparency.