Coke Lobbies Media To Include Biased Soda Tax Research

Coca-Cola has developed a system to fund and place industry-biased research in media about soda taxes. Select emails from the #CokeLeak of internal Coca-Cola executives showed how the company funds research to disparage the soda tax.

Coke then monitors and lobbies reporters to place the industry-biased research into popular articles about the effectiveness of the public health policy. They call this achieving “balance”.

Leaked Coca-Cola Email (5/25/16)

National reporters Candace Choi (AP), Margot Sanger-Katz (New York Times), Mike Esterl (Wall Street Journal), Anahad O’Connor (New York Times) and Jennifer Chaussee (WIRED) are all discussed in the emails.

“Please find all of the latest materials to use in responding to the claims that the excise tax in Mexico has been effective.” — Michael Goltzman, Coca-Cola to Global PAC Leadership Team (7/15/15)

Huffington Post

For this soda tax article in the Huffington Post entitled “Is Mexico’s Sugary Beverage Tax Effective Against Reducing Obesity?” by a Canadian economist, the beverage association “provided background material to help with his piece”. The relationship with soda companies was not disclosed.

“Please find an editorial from Canadian economist Patrick Luciani in the online Huffington Post criticizing Popkin’s analysis of the efficacy of the Mexico soft drinks tax. Luciani concludes that the tax is ineffective. The International Council of Beverages Association provided background material to help with this piece.”
Jonathan “Rocky” Rief, Coca-Cola (6/19/15)

Wall Street Journal

The soda-biased headline should tip you off, but the Wall Street Journal piece “Soda Sales in Mexico Rise Despite Tax: This is a bright spot for an industry that has feared it could be cast as the next tobacco” was apparently informed by Mike Esterl and Amy Guthrie (based in Mexico City) holding conversations and interviews with the American Beverage Association (ABA) and the Mexico Beverage Association (ANPRAC). The soda industry provided them with industry-funded research, including some that was still unpublished, which appeared in the final article.

“He reviewed multiple studies from well-respected institutions in Mexico (ITAM, ColMex, and UANL, supported by funding from industry) that make clear the tax was ineffective. He also received information from the ABA on a study they funded (but have not yet released) on the Mexico tax.”
— Kent J. Landers, Coca-Cola (4/27/16)

They also fell right into a strategy apparently discussed by Coca-Cola’s shareholders by printing a quote from Coke’s CEO Muhtar Kent.

“Given the question raised on taxes during our Annual Meeting of Shareowners, Mike will include a short quote from Muhtar saying that taxes are not the solution.”
Kent J. Landers, Coca-Cola (4/27/16)

They also “engaged in more off-the-record conversations via ABA” with Mike to successfully get him to not publish a Harvard School of Public Health study that estimated the health impact of the Philadelphia tax in reducing obesity-related diseases.

“While Mike initially planned to reference it, we worked through ABA to ensure Mike understood the source of the study and that it had not been published or peer reviewed yet. As of this evening, Mike is undecided whether he will include the study in his story.”
Karyn Harrington, Coca-Cola (5/6/16)

Again, they use the term “balance” to describe influencing the media to include soda industry research.

“In an effort to help shape the story and insert balance, there have been a number of conversations with Mike and the local anti-tax coalition, American Beverage Association, the Coca-Cola Company and other local voices, including the Teamsters and small business owners.”
Ben Schiedler, Coca-Cola (5/5/16)

Associated Press

Coca-Cola attempted to get Candace Choi with the AP to plug their transparency efforts instead of focusing on the industry-funded research “cartel” scandal about Rhona Applebaum of Coca-Cola.

AP beat reporter, Candice Choi, has reached out to us regarding a story she is writing on industry-funded nutrition research. According to the reporter, the story covers “the problems with companies funding research in which they have a vested financial interest. It provides a look at relationships/workings behind the scenes.”
She maintains that Coca-Cola is not the focus of the story and that there will be examples included from other companies and organizations. She has confirmed, however, that she will use an email exchange from Rhona Applebaum in which she refers to her regular group of researchers as the “Cartel.” And in another, she refers to Company critics as “trolls.” We do not have access to these emails and have asked the reporter to provide them so that we may respond with context; she has not yet provided those to us.
She also confirms she will include the Company’s unrestricted grant for a study with University of South Carolina that accompanied a strategic messaging plan. She notes certain excerpts from Professor Steve Blair to Rhona as well.
Amanda Rosseter, Coca-Cola (5/26/15)

Coke also went over her head to try and get her editors to pull one of her stories altogether, which didn’t work.

New York Times

Coca-Cola lobbied Margot Sanger-Katz of the New York Times to place an industry-funded study in her coverage of the soda taxes.

“William shared the Mexico Autonomous Institute of Technology’s study, which reveals that the tax has failed to improve health as its proponents claimed, is regressive and costs jobs. The American Beverage Association (ABA) will continue to manage this inquiry, with strong input and guidance from the Coca-Cola system to ensure a balanced, factual piece.”
Jennifer Lemming, Coca-Cola (3/29/16)

And they are disappointed when she doesn’t run them.

“ABA took the reporter on background through the West Virginia and Arkansas tax case studies, however neither is referenced in the article. Industry representative William Dermody is quoted.”
Jennifer Lemming, Coca-Cola (4/3/16)

Coke believes that injecting soda industry funded research into the narrative about the evidence base of soda taxes is achieving “balance”. We think it’s achieving bias. Now that Big Soda’s track record on funding research to confuse and bias science in their favor is common knowledge, quoting industry-funded research cannot be an accepted journalistic practice. Scientific research vs. industry research is a false equivalence.

Media that quotes industry-funded studies is bad for public health.