Two studies, published in the Journal of Public Health Policy and the BMJ, said that Coca-Cola’s links with Chinese health authorities, have caused China’s anti-obesity policies “to emphasise physical fitness over dietary restrictions, matching strategies advocated by Big Soda.”
Conducted by Susan Greenhalgh, a research professor at Harvard University, the study pinpointed that the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) – founded and funded by Coca-Cola, was a stepping stone that the soda giant used to shape anti-obesity policymaking in China.
There are 17 ILSI branches worldwide, but Greenhalgh posited that it welded a greater influence in China due to the connections that it enjoyed.
The ILSI was founded 40 years ago by Alex Malaspina, Coke’s then senior VP.
Its Chinese counterpart, ILSI-China (aka Focal Point in China), is now housed within the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – a unit of China’s Ministry of Health.
In her research, Greenhalgh spoke to Chen Chunming, who used to head ILSI-China, scientists from the CDC, other industry experts, and relied on data extracted from newsletters published by the ILSI-China.
“The staff of the industry funded ILSI-China have unparalleled access to government officials, and the organisation established itself as a premiere scientific body capable of providing access to the best that Western science has to offer,” Greenhalgh said in her report.
She further described Chen as a “tireless promoter of industry’s role in public health”.
“By stressing the theme in meeting after meeting, she helped normalise a role for industry in fighting chronic disease by promoting ‘healthy lifestyles’.
“By encouraging and concretely enabling industry participation in conferences, research, and public health interventions, Chen helped insert it into the nation’s core strategy to combat obesity and chronic disease.”
Besides Coca-Cola, the study also named Nestlé, McDonalds, and PepsiCo as the other MNCs that have funded ILSI-China.
Pushing the agenda
ILSI-China defended Coca-Cola’s and the industry’s interests by overemphasising the importance of physical activities for a healthy lifestyle, and lesser emphasis on healthy diets, Greenhalgh said.
She pointed out how ILSI-China’s sponsorships on anti-obesity efforts that focus on physical activity have increased in a ten year period.
For example, the proportion of such activities that ILSI-China has sponsored have increased from a third to nearly two thirds from 2004 – 2009 to 2010 – 2015.
In contrast, its sponsorship on obesity activities with a nutrition-focus “sank to around one in five” between 2010 and 2015.
“Nutritional approaches, such as promoting healthy foods, dietary guidelines, and nutritional education remained on the books, mapped out in national plans for chronic disease prevention, but despite some corporate funding, they lacked visibility and active government support,” Greenhalgh said in her reports.
At the same time, Coca-Cola also founded and supported public health programs that promote physical activities as the solution to fight obesity.
They included “Exercise is Medicine China”, “Happy 10 Minutes”, and “Healthy Lifestyles for All Action”.
In the case of “Exercise is Medicine China” launched in 2012, Coca-Cola was its founding corporate and sponsorship partner.
“Presenting itself as an advocate of ‘healthy active lifestyles’, Coke promoted the message that all foods and drinks are part of a healthy diet; to avoid obesity, what matters is how much you move. And it maintained that there were health benefits to the ingredients of sugar sweetened carbonated beverages.”
Greenhalgh acknowledged the studies’ limitation in measuring the effect of the industry’s involvement in China’s official obesity policy.
She also acknowledged that it was difficult to interview certain key informants and that the Ministry of Health officials were unresponsive due to the topic’s sensitivity.
However, she maintained that China’s policies have aligned well with Coke’s position.
“Though the effect on official obesity policy cannot be precisely measured, China’s policies aligned well with Coke’s position as transmitted through ILSI-China,”
“Hard hitting dietary policies recommended by the World Health Organisation—taxing sugary drinks and restricting food advertising to children—were missing, and national plans and targets emphasised physical fitness over dietary restrictions.”
“The company (Coca-Cola) has cleverly manoeuvered itself into a position of behind-the-scenes power that ensures that government policy to fight the growing obesity epidemic does not undermine its interests,” Greenhalgh concluded.
In response to the findings of the studies, Coca-Cola said it recognised that “too much sugar isn’t good for anyone” and that it “supports the current recommendation by several leading health authorities, including the World Health Organization (WHO)”.
In a statement sent to FoodNavigator-Asia, the firm said it was working towards the goal set by WHO, which is that individuals should limit the intake of added sugar to no more than 10% of their total energy/calorie consumption.
In addition, the company decided in 2017 not to provide, either directly or through a third party (such as a trade association), all of the funding for well-being scientific research, in order to avoid some of the questions that arise when it is the sole funder.
“Under our guidelines, we will provide financial support for such research only if a non-Coca-Cola entity funds at least 50% of the cost.”
As for China, the firm stated its commitment to healthier options, such as launching 22 low or no-sugar products.
“Coca-Cola China is also making low- and no-sugar products and smaller packages more accessible to consumers and in more points of sale, as well as providing clear and easily-accessible product information to help consumers make informed choices.”
Source 1: Journal of Public Health Policy
“Soda industry influence on obesity science and policy in China”
Author: Susan Greenhalgh
Source 2: The BMJ
“Making China safe for Coke: how Coca-Cola shaped obesity science and policy in China”
Author: Susan Greenhalgh