Coca-Cola money highlights risks of corporate influence
A University of Colorado professor who launched a global campaign to fight obesity accepted $550,000 from the Coca-Cola Co., traveled the world at company expense on speaking engagements and solicited a job at the soft-drink giant for his son.
James Hill, a nutrition expert who directs the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center, also obtained Coca-Cola’s help to run conferences for journalists that sought to “balance” an obesity debate focused on sugary drinks and featured a speaker who disparaged soda taxes.
The Coca-Cola connection highlights the secrecy surrounding much of the corporate money pouring into CU’s prestigious Anschutz medical campus.
In addition to the money it paid directly to Hill, not through the university, Coca-Cola donated $1 million to CU Anschutz to help Hill spread his message through a group called the Global Energy Balance Network. That was classified as a private gift to the university’s foundation, protected by state law from disclosure unless the donor consents.
The CU foundation has accepted $50.7 million in such gifts from a thousand corporations in the past five fiscal years, a small amount of which may be directed to research.
On the research front, CU Anschutz has spent $183 million from corporate and other nongovernment sponsors since 2011.
The top 20, all drug companies, invested $77 million alone.
The university says these amounts pale in comparison with the money coming from federal agencies, which account for 73 percent of CU Anschutz’s research dollars. University officials also emphasize that research projects, unlike the Coke gift, must pass a strict series of protocols to determine their public health potential.
The university discloses the amounts paid by research sponsors, but confidentiality clauses commonly protect the nature of their work.
A review of CU Anschutz records by The Denver Post found those sponsors included a cigarette maker and a company whose experimental drug, which was not related to the CU research, may have hastened the deaths of ovarian cancer patients.
The Post also found that distinctions between philanthropy, public health research and corporate interests can get blurred.
For example, Hill’s research on diet and nutrition attracted Coca-Cola’s interest long before the company made a philanthropic donation to his global project. He also serves as the principal investigator in a study that examines beef as a sole source of red meat protein in a diet. That research is co-sponsored by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, according to a clinical trials database.
Returning the gift
The university returned the $1 million gift from Coca-Cola. It says senior leaders made that decision because the company “was redirecting the dialogue” from a scientific discussion about the causes of obesity.
On Nov. 30, Hill announced that the Global Energy Balance Network was disbanding. Its collapse came three months after The New York Times reported the previously undisclosed gift.
University officials classified Coke’s gift as “unrestricted,” with no limitations on how it was to be used. Yet the money was given “for the purpose of funding” the network, they said.
Coke said it paid Hill $550,000 separately starting in 2010 for various purposes.
“This reflects work with Dr. Hill prior to the establishment of Global Energy Balance Network. These funds paid for honoraria, travel, education activities and research on weight management,” company spokesman Ben Sheid ler said.
During that time, Hill traveled at the company’s invitation to Mexico, Grenada, England, Australia and New Zealand, according to e-mail records. Coke also paid for his wife’s trip to Australia and New Zealand.
In 2013, Hill asked a Coca-Cola vice president if she could find a job for his youngest son.
“I am totally biased but this kid is something special. He is very interested in spending a couple of years in D.C. doing something related to international affairs/politics,” Hill wrote in an e-mail to Rhona Applebaum, then the company’s chief science officer. “I know you spend a fair amount of time in DC and work with your staff there. Does Coca Cola ever have any positions (interns maybe) for something like this.”
“I will make this happen!” Applebaum replied. “When is he available? Does he have a CV?”
After Hill supplied a résumé, she added, “So we are looking at September for him to start? If nothing becomes available via Dept of State, etc?”
Applebaum has retired from Coca-Cola, and the company is not replacing her, Sheidler said. Hill declined to be interviewed but responded to questions by e-mail.
Hill said Coca-Cola’s support allowed him “to present research to other scientists and to encourage physical activity and responsible eating habits.”
He said he no longer makes presentations at Coca-Cola’s request, he reported income from the company in compliance with university guidelines, and his son did not take a job with Coca-Cola.
He gave nine lectures during his trip to Australia and New Zealand, including a presentation at a major university, he said, and Coca-Cola paid for his wife’s travels in lieu of an honorarium.
Colorado Ethics Watch director Luis Toro said Hill’s trips may conflict with a state law limiting corporate gifts to public employees.
“The most problematic thing here is the travel,” he said. “That is the biggest red flag.”
Gifts versus sponsorship
Richard Traystman, vice chancellor for research at CU Anschutz, draws a sharp distinction between gifts from corporations such as the Coke money, and corporate-sponsored research.
Every research proposal must be approved by a large review committee, he said, and a group of scientists evaluates its effects on patients halfway through the research.
“Is it meritorious? Is it appropriate? Is it really good science, which is what we want,” he said.
CU Anschutz’s research ranges from Alzheimer’s disease and heart attacks to cystic fibrosis in children.
Corporate-sponsored grants amount to just 10 percent of the research funds coming to CU Anschutz, which gets most of its money from the National Institutes for Health and other federal agencies, Traystman said.
Drug companies may request confidentiality for competitive reasons at any research institution, but completed studies rarely go unpublished, Traystman said. “Industry plays an important role,” he said. “The only role? Not close.”
To probe the nature of CU Anschutz’s research activities, The Post requested project records concerning five sponsors. The university replied that three of the five — Telik Inc., Pinnacol Assurance and drug company Amgen — were protected by confidentiality agreements.
One that wasn’t: Philip Morris.
• CU Anschutz accepted $2.3 million from 2000 to 2012 from the cigarette maker, using smokers in health studies.
The stated purpose was “research that contributes to fundamental scientific knowledge, helps address the concerns of the public health community regarding cigarette smoking,” and seeks product modifications “that might reduce the health risk of smoking.”
The university says the research discovered how cigarette smoke suppresses the immune system in the lungs. It no longer accepts research money from cigarette makers, however.
• CU Anschutz took $110,000 through 2014 from Telik Inc. The company was ordered by federal officials to halt trials on an experimental ovarian cancer drug in 2007 after patients died at alarmingly fast rates. The university says its grant concerned a different, promising drug for a devastating bone marrow cancer.
• CU Anschutz accepted a multiyear $639,437 grant from Pinnacol, a self-supporting subdivision of the state of Colorado that handles worker compensation claims.
Edie Sonn, a Pinnacol spokeswoman, said the research concerned its health risk-management program for small businesses and resulted in two published articles. “We shared our findings with legislators and all our policyholders,” she said.
The Coke funding came with less scrutiny from the university.
A 2014 conference for journalists at the CU Anschutz campus featured Coca-Cola and McDonald’s executives as well as Christopher Snowdon, a lecturer from a free-market think tank. The conference, funded in part through the Coke gift, also included research, financed by the American Beverage Association, that found people lost more weight drinking diet beverages than water.
In a speech, Snowdon said soda taxes are a bad way to fight obesity. They fall hardest on low-income people, invite people to switch to cheaper brands or simply pay more, and yield a negligible reduction of calorie intake, he said.
He also spoke about the economic upside of unhealthy lifestyles that shorten life expectancies.
“There are costs associated with an aging population — very severe costs,” Snowdon said. “So if people are spending less time in old age, at which point they are not paying taxes any more generally and they are taking from the system rather than putting in after the age of 65, then what are the savings there?”
Kristin Jones attended as a health reporter for Rocky Mountain PBS I-News.
“What I thought I was getting was a presentation of the science of obesity,” she said. Instead, she found an industry-friendly series of workshops where the presentations supported a particular theory of energy balance and soda taxes were condemned.
“I wouldn’t have gone through a three-day conference on the science of obesity if I knew it was partly sponsored by Coca-Cola,” she said.
Six years of university e-mails show Hill and a professor at the University of South Carolina were intimately involved with Coca-Cola’s efforts to adjust the scale in the obesity debate.
The e-mails, first obtained by The Associated Press, date to conversations in 2009 with Coca-Cola leaders. In September of that year, Rhona Applebaum wrote that she had just gotten off the phone with Hill.
“Jim is willing to do exercise and energy balance — focusing on why it is critical for maintaining a healthy weight. We’re moving,” she wrote.
In 2014, Hill wrote to another Coca-Cola official that he was committing the rest of his career to guide the obesity debate in a different direction through “a very powerful coalition of the right people” who could change things.
“We have the passion, the innovative ideas and the right approach. We need substantial resources,” he wrote.
“It is not fair that Coca-Cola is (singled) out as the #1 villain in the obesity world, but that is the situation and makes this your issue whether you like it or not. I want to help your company avoid the image of being a problem in peoples’ lives and back to being a company that brings important and fun things to them.”
He added a sales pitch. “I hope I am not being too forward but I need your help — and a lot of it,” he wrote. “No other groups out there are thinking the way we are thinking and we can succeed.”
Applebaum envisioned the Global Energy Balance Network in 2014 as “a game changer. It will unite/network the science community to address the health issue of the century. That’s a big deal,” she wrote.
Barely a year later, the deal fell through.
On an otherwise empty website, the network states it has discontinued operations, effective immediately, “due to resource limitations.”
The statement encourages members to continue the mission of “advancing the science of energy balance to achieve healthier living.”
David Olinger: 303-954-1498, firstname.lastname@example.org or @dolingerdp