Soda companies have had a rough time as of late. Taxes on sugary beverages are gaining momentum after Philadelphia became the largest city in the country to approve one earlier this year. And last year, Coca-Cola had to acknowledge that it for funded studies aimed at making their products appear healthier in an effort to sway public opinion. Now, Australia’s The Sydney Morning Herald is outing another of the brand’s tactics that some may find unsavory, claiming that Coke has “a secret plan to monitor research at Sydney University that examines how private companies influence public health outcomes in areas such as obesity.”
According to reporter Marcus Strom, leaked internal emails from Coca-Cola published earlier this month on the site DC Leaks show that one of the company’s paid consultants recommended the company monitor the work of Lisa Bero, a professor at the Charles Perkins Centre – a department of the University of Sydney “dedicated to easing the global burden of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and related conditions through innovative research and teaching.” In the past, she has worked to expose how tobacco companies influence public health issues; more recently, she’s turned her focus to soda companies.
Bero herself said she sees a parallel between what happened with tobacco companies and what may be happening now with soda. “When tobacco industry documents were released in the US they revealed that my work was monitored and reported on to the tobacco companies as early as 1993,” she was quoted as saying. “Monitoring independent research is a common strategy among corporate interests.”
Of course, the old adage goes “keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” so when asked for comment, Stephen Simpson, head of the Charles Perkins Centre, wasn’t particularly shocked at the findings. “On the one hand, it's not surprising that Coca-Cola [is] tracking academic activity that may impact upon their business,” he said. “But on the other hand, it is kind of creepy.”
However, US nutritionist Marion Nestle, a recent visiting fellow to the Charles Perkins Centre who was also mentioned in the leaked emails, pointed out how the monitoring speaks to a larger issue. “All of this fits into the bigger picture of soda-industry efforts to fight public health efforts: lobbying against regulation, opposing tax initiatives, funding favourable research, donating to community organisations, and all of the other methods I described in [my book] Soda Politics,” she stated.
For its part, a Coca-Cola South Pacific spokesperson said the brand “is interested in keeping abreast of research project outcomes when that research is published.” But Bero noted that knowing you’re being monitored by one of the world’s largest corporations doesn’t feel as mundane as that sounds, leaving what she said are “chilling effects on independent researchers, particularly junior researchers.”