Is It Ethical for Coke to Sponsor Conflicted Research on Weight Loss?

Given Coke's own standards, it is appropriate to ask: Are the company's actions that have prompted such sharp public criticism in line with its strong commitment to integrity? More specifically, are they consistent with Coke's imperative of "acting honestly"?
08/19/2015 05:15 pm ET Updated Aug 19, 2016
Boys drinking soda together
Boys drinking soda together

Some experts in nutrition and public health are roundly criticizing Coca-Cola for funding the launch of a nonprofit whose ostensible purpose is to promote healthier living. The soft drink giant donated $1.5 million to set up the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN), which says it aims to help "prevent and reduce diseases associated with inactivity, poor nutrition and obesity" and is led by scientists pursuing "an evidence-based approach to ending obesity."

Critics, however, see the gift as part of an effort to reverse declining sales. Marion Nestle, a professor at New York University, charged that GEBN is "nothing but a front group for Coca-Cola." The company's agenda, she said, is to "[g]et these researchers to confuse the science and deflect attention from dietary intake." University of North Carolina professor Barry Popkin likened Coke's support of GEBN to the tobacco industry's enlisting experts as "merchants of doubt" to obscure the health risks of smoking. The remarks appeared in a recent New York Times story on the new organization and Coca-Cola's connection to it.

Coke has reason to worry about weakening sales. Americans now drink 25 percent fewer full-calorie sodas than 20 years ago, while cities and school districts are trying to discourage consumption of sugary beverages, especially by children. Referring to a "huge political and public backlash against soda," public health lawyer Michele Simon said Coke's underwriting GEBN is "a direct response to the ways the company is losing. They're desperate to stop the bleeding."

According to the Times, "Critics say Coke has long cast the obesity epidemic as primarily an exercise problem. 'The message is that obesity is not about the foods or beverages you're consuming, it's that you're not balancing those foods with exercise,' Dr. [Yoni] Freedhoff of the University of Ottawa said.'"

However, GEBN's president, James O. Hill, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, denied that the group claims that "it's all about physical activity and it's not about food." But public statements by GEBN seem to contradict Dr. Hill.

In a video introducing GEBN, vice president Steven Blair, an exercise scientist, asserts: "Most of the focus in the popular media and in the scientific press is, 'Oh they're eating too much, eating too much, eating too much'--blaming fast food, blaming sugary drinks and so on. . . . And there's virtually no compelling evidence that that, in fact, is the cause."

A news release by the group also questions the prevailing opinion of health and nutrition experts, again misleadingly ascribing it to the media: "The media tends to blame the obesity epidemic on our poor eating habits. . . . But are those french fries really the culprit? Dr. Steve Blair explains that you shouldn't believe everything you see on TV." Sedentary behavior, Dr. Blair suggests, bears more blame than eating too much.

On its website, GEBN cites "strong evidence" that avoiding weight gain involves "maintaining an active lifestyle and eating more calories"--the evidence being two research papers whose publication was supported by Coca-Cola.

In an editorial, the Times observed that "Coke and other beverage makers have long funneled money to industry-leaning scientists and formed innocent-sounding front groups to spread the message that sugary sodas have no deleterious effect on health and should not be taxed or regulated." All the while, "the evidence continues to mount that sugar-sweetened drinks are a major contributor to obesity, heart disease and diabetes, and that exercise makes only a modest contribution to weight loss compared to ingesting fewer calories."

Both the editorial and the critics quoted in the Times article are clearly faulting Coca-Cola for its policies in this area. But what exactly is blameworthy about Coke's actions? Its donations and public-policy initiatives are perfectly legal. Moreover, many would argue that the company's managers have a fiduciary duty to the company's investors to maximize shareholder value, requiring them to do whatever they can, within the law, to increase profits.

However, Coca-Cola itself rejects this idea. In his introduction to the firm's Code of Business Conduct, Chairman and CEO Muhtar Kent lauds the company's "rich culture of integrity and ethical conduct" and points out that "[a]cting with integrity is about more than our Company's image and reputation, or avoiding legal issues." Ultimately, he says, it "means acting honestly and treating each other and our customers, partners, suppliers and consumers fairly, and with dignity."

Given Coke's own standards, it is appropriate to ask: Are the company's actions that have prompted such sharp public criticism in line with its strong commitment to integrity? More specifically, are they consistent with Coke's imperative of "acting honestly"? And, in light of growing evidence that sugary drinks contribute to obesity and other health problems, is Coke treating consumers "fairly" and "with dignity"? Much of the criticism of the company on this issue reflects the conviction of many experts that the answer to both of these questions is "no."

Obviously, Coca-Cola's leaders do not share this opinion and see no conflict between its actions and its values. Apparently, they feel that as long as the researchers Coke supports are reputable scientists who have control over the work and the funding is fully disclosed, there's no ethical problem: "We partner with some of the foremost experts in the fields of nutrition and physical activity," the company told the Times. "It's important to us that the researchers we work with share their own views and scientific findings, regardless of the outcome, and are transparent and open about their funding."

Unfortunately, this position ignores some critical facts about conflicts of interest. First, as is well-known from extensive psychological research on conflicts of interest, the biases that create them are generally unconscious and thus can affect even distinguished scientists who are unaware of their bias. Second, this fact helps explain why numerous studies show that the source of funding influences the outcome of the research, even if the researchers are convinced of their impartiality. Third, the fact the researchers usually hope to continue receiving funding from the grantor is a further source of (unconscious) bias that can skew the results. Finally, disclosure of a conflict of interest does not necessarily diminish its effects on researchers' judgment and decisions. Its purpose is to alert others to the possibility of bias.

Objectivity is a defining norm of science. Conflicts of interest undermine researchers' objectivity and cast doubt on the reliability of their findings. Coca-Cola is no doubt well aware of this and makes sure that, when it is the "consumer" of the research and needs accurate, reliable answers to scientific questions, the researchers are not conflicted. Most certainly, Coke's own scientists recognize that the quest for scientific truth demands eliminating, as much as possible, the influence of conflicts of interest. Simply acknowledging the conflicts in the name of "transparency" does not suffice.

The fact is, Coca-Cola is supporting research--on matters vital to public health--that it knows is conflicted. It knows, too, that the conflicts are largely unconscious and not cured by disclosure. Given Coke's commitment to honesty and integrity in all of its operations, it has an obligation not to fund and disseminate research that fails to meet the demands of objectivity it makes of its own scientists when, internally, it requires sound, unbiased results. Furthermore, health-conscious consumers are every bit as entitled to reliable data as Coke is, and they are wronged when conflicted research endorsed by a trusted company leads them to make unhealthy choices. To sponsor and publicize such research is to fail to treat consumers "fairly, and with dignity."