Under Pressure, Coca-Cola Backed Research Group Fizzles

Critics of the Global Energy Balance Network had compared its work to the tactics of big tobacco, which decades ago had sponsored studies to dissuade Americans that cigarettes were dangerous.

After months of criticism, a research group created and financed by Coca-Cola has announced it is disbanding, apparently undone by public health experts who said it was formed to seed doubts about the link between sugary drinks and obesity.

The Global Energy Balance Network, which was the focus of a story in The New York Times in August, took down material from its website on Monday, according to a report in the paper late yesterday. Critics had compared the tactics of the network to the efforts once deployed by big tobacco, which once financed studies to undercut rising concerns about the safety risks of cigarettes.

A final blow apparently came last week when the University of Colorado returned a $1 million grant that Coca-Cola had provided to launch the group. Professor James O. Hill, the network’s president, declined a request from The Times for comment. Hill had repeatedly denied that Coca-Cola influenced the scientific work of the group, but email obtained by the Associated Press last week suggested otherwise.

An exchange between Hill and Coke’s chief scientist, Rhona Applebaum, likened the network to a “political campaign,” that would “develop, deploy and evolve a powerful and multi-faceted strategy to counter radical organizations and their proponents.” The focus would be for Coca-Cola to fund a study blaming obesity on a lack of exercise.

Coca-Cola has since announced Applebaum’s retirement, and that another senior executive would be meeting with public health leaders while it worked to become “more transparent.”

Just yesterday, CDC, which like Coca-Cola is based in Atlanta, Georgia, announced that new cases of diabetes have dropped for the first time in a generation. While officials are not certain why this has occurred, nutrition experts have noted that full-calorie soda consumption has dropped 25% in the last 20 years.

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