On August 19th, The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent wherein Kent admitted that Coca-Cola funded scientific studies that attempted to shift blame for the growing obesity crisis off diet and onto exercise. Kent said the scheme to fund questionable studies was meant to take attention away from the beverage company he runs but was “not working” and that this behavior by Coca-Cola “does not reflect our intent or our values.”
The op-ed comes on the heels of reports showing that the soda giant provided the seed money and continuing support for a non-profit group called the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN) which made dubious scientific claims regarding the role diet plays in weight management. The group claimed that “there’s really virtually no compelling evidence” that fast food and sugary drinks (like Coca-Cola) are responsible for obesity. Instead, GEBN suggested exercise was the key to maintaining a healthy weight.
GEBN’s claims concerning weight management contradict the scientific consensus that puts diet as the primary culprit in the significant increase in obesity across the world with exercise playing a more minor role. The revelation that Coca-Cola was behind the controversial group led to a wave of criticism from public health advocates.
To pacify the criticism, Kent said Coca-Cola will become more transparent and disclose future investments in research and advocacy related to the way drinks such as Coca-Cola contribute to obesity.
The rapid response to the allegations along with the promise of changes to company policy marks a considerable evolution from the way Coca-Cola previously handled controversies. When it came to the intimidation and killings of workers trying to collectively bargain in Coca-Cola bottling plants in Colombia, the company did everything it could to distance itself from the bottlers it funded. Company officials claimed, “the Coca-Cola Company does not own or operate any bottling plants in Colombia,” and fought every claim of responsibility in court.
Human rights advocates and trade unionists claimed that Coca-Cola bottlers in Colombia hired paramilitaries from the right wing United Self Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) to murder nine union members at Colombian bottling plants. The killings were an attempt by the bottlers to break and weaken union activity to depress wages at the plants.
The families of the slain sued in the United States, but the company got the lawsuit dismissed in 2006. Coca-Cola issued a statement saying, “We hope this decision will now enable us to put this case behind us.”
No one claimed that working with bottlers who paid people to kill workers was against Coca-Cola’s “intent or values” and no one stated plans to change company policy on dealing with bottlers in Colombia.
So is this recent move by Coca-Cola just better PR instincts or a New Coke?