Soda remains a lightning-rod issue across the country.
Nearly five years after an attempt to ban gigantic soda portions in New York City was finally destroyed, soda is still in the news. San Francisco recently tried (and failed) to place health warnings on soda. Legislators in Connecticut are trying to block soda from being listed on children’s menus in restaurants.
A new release from US Right to Know, an NGO targeting food transparency and perhaps best known for its quest for GMO labels on food, sheds some light into the behind-the-scenes machinations of the soda battle. USRTK sent in dozens of Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, requests; these compel the government to hand over documents, as long as a few basic criteria (like not interfering with national security) are met.
USRTK’s requests were specifically targeted at communications between Coca-Cola and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (usually known as the CDC; the “prevention” part was added later and nobody feels like changing the acronym). They found essentially what you might expect, providing that you’re a cynic who assumes that all corporations are destructive.
The documents include some findings that are questionable, like CDC employees recommending that Coca-Cola hire other CDC employees—in effect, asking for a favor. Coca-Cola embarked on what are some pretty standard marketing ploys: making meetings with CDC staff to promote Coca-Cola products and, notably, to downplay or deny studies indicating connections between soda consumption and ill health effects. Reasonable in some cases, sure—but aimed at the government agency tasked with preventing obesity?
One of the most problematic interactions comes in response to a push from the World Health Organization’s director-general, who publicly noted the connection between sugar-added soda and obesity in 2015. Wrote a Coca-Cola executive to a CDC employee: “Please see report on WHO. This is getting a lot of publicity. We must find a way of some one [sic] such as a famous scientist [to] arrange to pay her a visit. Maybe Jim Hill or someone of similar stature or a US government scientist.” The email concluded that “This threat to our business is serious.”
The CDC told Salon that the interactions were within the boundaries of the Center’s ethical guidelines, something the USRTK report specifically mentions; those guidelines have some wiggle room. Does Coca-Cola “exacerbate morbidity or mortality when used as directed”? Does Coca-Cola come with directions? Does it matter who drinks it, or how much? Does Coca-Cola suggest servings or frequency of drinking?