Coca-Cola is bankrolling a campaign to focus the discussion about obesity in Australia on exercise and away from diet as the solution to the health epidemic.
Last August, Coca-Cola’s global boss promised to publish all financing of health groups and research globally after revelations of its activities by the The New York Times.
Within six weeks it disclosed that the soft drink giant had given $US21.8 million ($30.5 million) to fund research and $US96.8 million to fund what it calls “health and wellbeing partnerships” in the United States.
ESSA chief executive Anita Hobson-Powell said Coca-Cola South Pacific covered “about half” of the money needed to establish and run EIM Australia from 2010 to 2013, during which time its involvement was disclosed on all EIM material.
More than six months later, no such disclosures have been made in Australia.
But the company’s US disclosure has exposed a glimpse of how it has supported health groups and research in Australia.
It shows Coca-Cola made an “unrestricted gift” of $US100,000 ($140,000 at current exchange rates) to Jeff Coombes, professor at the University of Queensland’s school of human movement and nutrition sciences, in 2014 to support research on using exercise to treat metabolic syndrome – a collection of disorders that include obesity and high blood pressure.
The $140,000 gift does not appear on Dr Coombes’ university grants page but he said it was disclosed on relevant research papers and at the start of all academic presentations. He insisted Coca-Cola had no input or control over his research.
“A quick look at my recent publications would provide several examples where the outcomes did not support the funding industry’s products,” he said.
Dr Coombes, who approached Coca-Cola to ask for financial support, said there had been a clear message from government that researchers needed to obtain more funding from industry.
“Corporate philanthropy has become more important as less and less taxpayer money has been allocated in this area,” he said.
The gift has since been removed from Coca-Cola’s transparency page, along with all other researchers and groups outside the US, but can still be seen on an archived version.
Dr Coombes was president of Exercise and Sports Science Australia (ESSA) from 2006 and 2011, during which time the body established an Australian arm of Exercise is Medicine – a global health group which has received extensive support from Coca-Cola.
EIM’s encourages doctors to prescribe physical activity as treatment for obesity, while its educational material makes scant mention of diet.