In the midst of the obesity epidemic that plagues China, Coca-Cola has managed to influence the health policies of the country to avoid the establishment of a 20% tax on sugary drinks and other measures recommended by the World Health Organization, according to new research from Harvard University (USA).
China is already the third largest global market for Coca-Cola. In 2011, 42% of Chinese adults were overweight or obese, more than twice as many as two decades earlier, according to official data.
There is a complex network of institutional, financial and personal contacts through which the US company has obtained a position of power behind the scenes that guarantees that the Chinese government policy to fight against the growing epidemic of obesity does not undermine their interests.
According to researchers, the International Institute of Life Sciences (ILSI), an organization created in 1978 by Coca Cola vice president, Alex Malaspina, aims to be “a highly reliable forum to generate, collect and discuss scientific data on issues of public health impact.”
Unfortunately, ILSI is funded by dozens of companies in the food industry, such as Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Nestlé and PepsiCo.
Not surprisingly, Coca-Cola has used the ILSI to influence the health policies of the world’s most populous country.
In 1978, the sugary drinks company was the first international company to receive authorization to settle in China after the 30 years of isolation imposed by Mao Zedong.
That same year, Malaspina visited the country to initiate relations with local scientists. He quickly identified Chen Chunming, a powerful nutritionist with a reputation for high-level contacts in the central government, says the report published in the prestigious medical journal BMJ.
At the time, Chen was the founding president of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of China.
In 1993, the nutritionist was hired by the ILSI to direct its Chinese branch. Currently, the public and private bodies share headquarters, as reported by Harvard.
The ILSI-China staff is funded by the industry and has unprecedented access to government officials, the report reveals.
As a consequence of that influence, Chinese policies have been aligned with Coca-Cola’s commercial strategies.
There are no high impact dietary policies of those recommended by the WHO, such as taxes on sugary drinks and the restriction of advertising for children’s products.
National plans only emphasize doing exercise on the diet. ILSI, after declining to respond to the Harvard study, issued a statement in which it denies having influenced Chinese policies. It also claims that its mission is “to provide science that improves human health”.
“We recognize that too much sugar is not good for anyone. In fact, we support the current recommendation of several health authorities of reference -including the WHO- that people limit their intake of added sugars to no more than 10% of the total calories consumed,” Coca-Cola states in a statement.
The WHO indication suggests a daily limit of 50 grams of sugar in a 2,000-calorie diet, while there are 108 grams of sugar in a liter of Coca-Cola.
The consumption of sweetened drinks in the world is associated with 133,000 deaths per year from diabetes, 45,000 from cardiovascular diseases and another 6,450 from different types of cancer, according to the calculations of another team at Harvard University.
Coca-Cola says that it has launched 22 products with little or no sugar content in China and that it is betting on reducing the volume of its packaging.
“In 2015, we committed to publicly disclosing our economic support to scientific research related to health and well-being,” the statement added. Thanks to this announced transparency, unusual in the sector, it is known that Coca-Cola delivered eight million euros to dozens of Spanish scientific and medical organizations between 2010 and 2017.
A year ago, the company decided not to finance more than 50% of the budget for scientific research in any case, with the aim of avoiding accusations of misrepresenting science.
“I welcome Coca-Cola’s commitment to transparency,” says Martin McKee, professor of European Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “However, in a recent study, comparisons between the research that Coca-Cola claims to have financed with the investigations that declared funding for the company found a substantial mismatch.
It seems they have a lot of work ahead. Further analysis found 907 authors who work or are funded by Coca-Cola, but the company only reported these economic links in less than 5% of cases.
The text denounces the use of organizations like ILSI to “promote ineffective educational campaigns instead of legal measures on the price, availability, and marketing of their products”.