July 14, 2016
I’ve often written about the collusion between industry and our regulatory agencies, and how industry-funded research tends to simply support and promote the industry agenda rather than shed truthful light on the benefits or risks of any given product.
Recent media reports have now revealed devastating evidence showing a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) executive aided a Coca-Cola representative in efforts to influence World Health Organization (WHO) officials to relax recommendations on sugar limits.1
In March 2015, WHO published a new sugar guideline that specifically targeted sugary beverages, calling them out as a primary cause for childhood obesity around the world, especially in developing nations, where the soda industry is now aggressively expanding its reach.
WHO’s recommendation to limit soda consumption was a huge blow to an already beleaguered soda industry, struggling to maintain a declining market share amid mounting evidence identifying sweetened drinks as a primary contributor to the obesity and diabetes epidemics.
“The emails were between Barbara Bowman, Ph.D. director of the CDC’s Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention, and Dr. Alex Malaspina, a former Coca-Cola scientific and regulatory affairs leader and the founder of a food industry-funded group, International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI).
They allegedly show Bowman’s multiple attempts to aid Malaspina’s relationship with WHO leaders whose actions (think soda tax) were hurting the beverage industry.
According to the report, Bowman — whose job is to try to help prevent obesity, diabetes and other health problems — ‘appeared happy to help the beverage industry cultivate political sway with the World Health Organization.'”
This kind of political maneuvering and back scratching is covered at length in Marion Nestle, Ph.D.’s book “Soda Politics.” I interviewed Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, last year.
In response to the CDC-Coke scandal, she says:4
“[T]he fact that a high-level U.S. health official is communicating in this way with a beverage industry leader appears improper,” adding the emails “suggest that ILSI, Coca-Cola and researchers funded by Coca-Cola have an ‘in’ with a prominent CDC official.
The official appears to be interested in helping these groups organize opposition to ‘eat less sugar’ and ‘disclose industry funding’ recommendations.
The invitation to dinner suggests a cozy relationship … This appearance of conflict of interest is precisely why policies for engagement with industry are needed for federal officials.”
Nestle’s book reveals the soda industry is well aware of the connection between soda consumption and obesity and obesity-related diseases.
Soda companies are by law required to inform the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) about vulnerabilities, and for the last decade Coca-Cola has been telling the SEC that obesity is the most significant threat to soda industry profits.
In short, Coca-Cola knows that once the truth about soda’s influence on obesity becomes fully recognized, their jig is up.
Exposed CDC Official Steps Down
For many years now, health advocates have warned people about the connection between sugary drinks and obesity, and the message has slowly but surely started to take hold.
U.S. soda sales have dropped 25 percent since 1998,5 no doubt due to successful public health advocacy, and this makes the current scandal all the more scandalous, as it’s an attempt by a high-level health official to undo all the work that’s already been done to protect the public health. According to USRTK:6
“Alex Malaspina was able to ask for and receive regular input and guidance from a top official at the … CDC on how to address actions by the World Health Organization that were hurting the food and beverage industry.
The emails … reveal that … Bowman … tried to help Malaspina find inroads to influence WHO officials to back off anti-sugar talk. Bowman suggested people and groups for Malaspina to talk to, and solicited his comments on some CDC summaries of reports … ”
Surprisingly, Bowman had the good sense to immediately vacate her post once her betrayal of the public trust was exposed.
According to The Huffington Post,7 Bowman “announced her immediate departure from the agency … two days after it came to light that she had been offering guidance to a leading Coca-Cola advocate who was seeking to influence world health authorities on sugar and beverage policy matters.”
Perfect Example of Why Revolving Door to Industry Needs to Be Shut
While Bowman didn’t mention her public disgrace as a factor in her resignation, saying she’d made the decision to retire “late last month,” her boss, Ursula Bauer, Ph.D., confirmed Bowman’s dealings with Coca-Cola in an internal email to CDC staff.
In it, Bauer states the “perception that some readers may take from the article [revealing Bowman’s dealings with Malaspina] is not ideal,” adding that the situation “serves as an important reminder of the old adage that if we don’t want to see it on the front pages of the newspaper then we shouldn’t do it.”8
Bowman’s connections to Coca-Cola actually dates back decades,9 and it’s anyone’s guess as to how those ties may have slowed down the path to truth and influenced public health policy. She’d been at the CDC since 1992; she was appointed director of the Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention (DHDSP) in February 2013. But earlier in her career, Bowman worked as a senior nutritionist for Coca-Cola.
This just goes to show the power of the corporate and federal regulatory agency revolving door allegiances. Public servants must choose the hard road of doing what is best for the public, not their former bosses and acquaintances.
Few have that kind of integrity, it seems, and this case is a perfect example of why the door between private industry and public health and regulatory agencies needs to be more closely monitored. This is not a new problem and is pervasive in Washington for other industries. Yet the U.S. Congress and Senate continually fail to pass legislation to address this glaring loophole that decimates public health.
Philadelphia Imposes Soda Tax and Other Bad News for Big Soda
This scandal comes on the heels of a number of blows against the soda industry. Aside from WHO Director General Dr. Margaret Chan announcing soda is a key contributor to child obesity and suggesting restrictions on sugary beverages, Philadelphia recently decided to implement a soda tax to cut consumption.
Mexico imposed a soda tax in 2014, and San Francisco requires ads for sugary drinks to include a health warning as of last year. Many cities around the world are also considering similar measures to restrict soda sales. However, the stance against sugar taken by WHO was perhaps considered one of the most serious. In a June 2015 email to Bowman, Malaspina expresses worry about negative publicity related to sugar-rich products and European soda tax plans.
Malaspina says WHO’s actions can have “significant negative consequences on a global basis,” and that “the threat to our business is serious.” He also notes that WHO officials “do not want to work with industry,” adding that, “something must be done.” In response to Malaspina’s request for suggestions on how to get an audience with WHO, Bowman replies that “someone with Gates or ‘Bloomberg people’ may have close connections that could open a door at WHO,” USRTK writes.
“She also suggests he try someone at PEPFAR program, a U.S. government-backed program that makes HIV/AIDS drugs available through the sub-Saharan Africa. She tells him that ‘WHO is key to the network.’ She writes that she ‘will be in touch about getting together.'”
Clearly, the soda industry is struggling to stay alive. But at what cost should they be allowed to promote their business? It’s equally clear that the price for their unrestricted success is disease and death of its consumers, which is why these kinds of backdoor dealings are so unpalatable.