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Labeling with a taste of Coca Cola

Labeling with a taste of Coca Cola

“I am a consumer of their products, a daily consumer; I can tell you that the president drinks Coca Cola every day”. These were Enrique Peña Nieto’s words in 2016, just two months before the Secretary of Health declared a national emergency over the widespread occurrence of obesity and diabetes, tw conditions related to, among other factors, the high consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages.

The federal government pretended to curb a problem that could effectively collapse the national health system. In 2015, the cost for treating people with diabetes mellitus was increased by more than 3,000 dollars a year per patient at the Mexican Social Security Institute network of hospitals. It was projected that health care for these illnesses could reach a cost of 14 billion dollars by 2023.

2018 was Peña Nieto’s last year as president. According to the National Public Health Institute, by then 10% of the Mexicans over 20 years of age would have already developed diabetes and 18% would suffer from hypertension; obesity was present in 35% of underage minors and in 40% of adults: this illness is even more lethal than the homicidal violence that the country is currently living under. In fact, diabetes was the third cause of death in 2021, as it took the lives of 74,000 people, that include people as young as 15.

Deaths associated with Diabetes vs. Homicides in Mexico

Source: INEGI. Mortality statistics.

“Mexico is suffering from a diabetes epidemic that is significantly worse than many countries around the world”, alerts Laura Schmidt at the UCSF. She argues that a “huge source of the problem” is “the presence of these companies in Mexico”, as the country has “the unfortunate position of being adjacent to the United States” and being “a testing ground for strategies for reaching markets outside of the United States over many decades”.

Dr. Simón Barquera, head of the Nutrition Policies and Programs Investigation Department at the National Public Health Institute, explains that since the 1980’s mortality related to diabetes has increased alarmingly. “The reasons are complex because it is a very complex disease: the gigantic consumption of sugary drinks is to blame, as is the lack of emphasis on prevention by the public health services. Hence, a timely diagnosis for diabetes is rare”.

As one of its commercial strategies, Coca Cola systematically tries to convince the population that their sugar-sweetened beverages are not harmful for health. That is why, along with business associations, the company recurrently sponsors sporting events and children oriented activities, where they can promote two ideas: that soft drinks are a good option to hydrate and that obesity can be fought through “physical activation” and achieving an energetic balance.

The voices that oppose this discourse greatly annoy the executives of the sugary drinks firm. This is evident in a 2014 email by Rhona Applebaum, vice president of Coca Cola’s Science and Health office at the time: “We won’t let the bastards keep us down and the minority of agenda drivers must never win out over the majority of evidence based researchers”, she wrote. “Don’t give up… keep up the good fight Coca Cola!”, she told her collaborators, as can be seen in internal company emails that have been made public.

Coca Cola internal email published by the University of California at San Francisco.

A research published at the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in 2020 analyzes how the Coca Cola Company has also sponsored science conferences attempting “to shape public policy and public opinion in their favor” and to blame increasing obesity incidence to physical inactivity and other factors. In fact, the corporation recognized, through a statement, its support of “health related and functional benefits studies''. Between 2017 and 2019, Coca Cola Mexico donated 3,521,687 dollars to medical schools for research on food related topics and 842,638 dollars to sporting events approximately.
Amounts calculated using the exchange rate at the time (2017)

Yet, the civil organization Feed the Truth grades the company with 39 out of 100 points in transparency regarding the funds destined to lobbying, science, charity and electoral campaigns. This is because the corporation did not inform about its political and lobbying activities; Coca Cola “operated in almost 200 countries, but only [shares] information based in the United States” and has not yet disclosed the scientific and academic funding figures as it committed to do in 2015.

Activists and academics question this type of practices, as they serve only as a commercial showcare for the firm. Schmidt considers it a deliberate and intentional strategy. “They have launched a worldwide effort to build a scientific evidence base that argues that the cause of obesity is physical inactivity, not poor diets based on ultra-processed foods and beverages; they have hired scientists all over the world”, she states. “They have given these scientists a lot of money to conduct research” and conclude that they are “more inclined to think that physical activity is the issue”.

A 2016 research by the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the University of California in San Francisco, among others, proved that the studies over the effects of sugar-sweetened beverages over the weight and size of consumers tend to offer favorable conclusions when sponsored by the same industry.

In fact, in 2012 the National Public Health Institute itself was invited to collaborate in a study sponsored by Coca@ Cola; researchers, however, declined. Angry at the rejection, Rhona Applebaum wrote an email to Peter Katzmarzyk at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center and other people, among them a representative of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The email reads: “So if good scientists take money from Coke-what?-they’re corrupted? Despite the fact they’re advancing public good? As you can see my opinion of such folks is pretty low because of how selfish it is”.

Detail of internal mail published by the University of California, San Francisco

There has been a constant resistance to admit the damage that sugar-sweetened beverages do to consumers. Barquera, who is also a co-researcher at the National Nutrition and Health Poll, says that since 2003 he has been alerting the Mexican government about the increase in obesity and diabetes as a result of soft drinks consumption. On one occasion, he even discussed the topic in front of the Cámara de Diputados. Nevertheless, in that same session the Coca Cola Company took an obesity expert, who assured the problem was caused by a virus. Another argument he presented was that “people stopped smoking and thus started overeating” and even stated that the problem might be a genetic issue, “as Mexicans have a diabetes propension”, remembers Barquera.

Coca Cola has made efforts to prove that it supports public policies in Mexico. For instance, during the Peña Nieto administration, José Antonio Meade Kuribeña, then Secretary of Social Development, signed an agreement with Coca Cola FEMSA to install water fountains in schools, and to actively promote healthy eating and “energetic balance”. In an event to present the agreement, Meade said that the Mexican government and Coca Cola shared the goal of “building a more prosperous and inclusive country”.

Another common Coca Cola practice is hiring lobbyists. Only in 2021, the company spent 5,620,000 dollars as lobbying fees only in the United States, according to information disclosed by OpenSecrets, an independent group that traces money used in American politics and its effect on elections and public policies. In Mexico, journalistic versions point at the lawyer Emilio Suárez Licone was hired by the firm as a lobbyist; Suárez was Meade’s legal adviser when the latter fronted the Social Development Secretary, and also held positions in the Secretary of Treasury and in Foreign Affairs. However, POPLab could not yet verify the veracity of this information.

The corporation has to be acknowledged as a political power with a great influence, considers Alejandro Calvillo, director of El Poder del Consumidor. He recalls that on the day when Peña Nieto presented the National Strategy for the Prevention and Control of Obesity and Diabetes, the president was accompanied by Mercedes Juan and other officers, and Brian Smith, president of the Coca Cola Company in Latin America. Smith, in his speech, stated that he supported the government, as well as its health improvement, physical activation and child obesity programs.

Nonetheless, the strategy proposed by Mercedes Juan was not properly implemented; for example, in the case of the water fountains installation -a measure taken so that children would cease to consume sugary drinks-, the Federation’s Superior Auditor found that by 2017 only half of these water fountains had been installed, meaning that more than 23,000 Basic Education students were without this service.

However, Simón Barquera acknowledges that some public health policies have indeed worked, but their implementation has been slow. “It is a pity that these things could have been made 20 years ago with the proper political will, but instead have taken a long time and have not been properly implemented yet”. He considers that proving and documenting that sugar-sweetened beverages are causing a national health problem is a first victory. “It is an achievement, because we made a stance and now we all can acknowledge that Mexico is living through an alarming pandemic”.

The Coca Cola’s tokens is an investigation by:

  • Within:
    With the support of:
  • “This work was carried out by Kennia Velázquez and Elizabeth Rosales, for POPLab and CONNECTAS, within ARCO, with the support of the International Center for Journalist (ICFJ) within the framework of the initiative for Investigative Journalism in the Americas.”

  • Web design and development:
  • Nicolás Temachtiani Aranda Alvarez
  • Miguel Angel Cabrera Cervantes
  • Audiovisual production:
  • Juan José Plascencia
  • Emilio Jiménez
  • Jhasua Razo Quintero
  • Edition:
  • CONNECTAS team

Publication: March 27, 2022