The Coca-Cola Company had a “significant say” in research it sponsored at the University of South Carolina, according to a new report in the Journal of Public Health Policy.
The agreements USC signed with Coca-Cola provided $1.2 million in obesity research funding in 2013 and 2014, but allowed the company to abruptly cancel research, provide comments before publication and keep research data, according to documents released by the report’s authors.
“This quote-unquote science isn’t science, it’s public relations,” said study co-author Gary Ruskin. “That’s a problem with research ethics.”
USC points out that the contract with Coca-Cola did not allow the company to edit the report (save for certain confidential information) and did not allow Coca-Cola to suppress reports once they were finished, spokesman Jeff Stensland said in an email.
“The ability to publish results is the underpinning of open scientific inquiry and one we would never compromise,” Stensland said. “The sole exception made is for proprietary or patentable information that could be used in future inventions, which is standard for all corporate-funded research projects.”
USC says it no longer has a research agreement with Coca-Cola. A primary researcher involved with USC’s research, Steven Blair, has retired from USC, according to Stensland, the university directory and 2018 Department of Administration payroll data.
“While Dr. Blair has retired, the university stands by the work he conducted here. He is considered a pioneer in the exercise science field, and his work — which spanned nearly four decades — has contributed to the public’s understanding of the importance of integrating diet and exercise in weight management,” Stensland said.
Another key researcher, Gregory Hand, left USC in 2015 for West Virginia University.
Coca-Cola said in a statement it has since changed how it funds research. Those changes include posting publicly all the research the company has funded since 2010 on its website and only funding research if other entities also provide more than 50 percent of the funding, according to the statement and a post on the company’s website.
“We agree research transparency and integrity are important,” the statement said. “That’s why, since 2016, The Coca-Cola Company has not independently funded research on issues related to health and wellbeing.”
The report’s authors researched the report by requesting through the Freedom of Information Act documents related to Coca-Cola’s sponsored research at five American and Canadian institutions. Those requests turned up 87,013 pages of documents, according to the study.
Coca-Cola faced scrutiny after a 2015 New York Times report said the company funded researchers who shifted the blame for obesity away from a bad diet and onto a lack of exercise. After that report surfaced, at least one college returned the research money it received from Coca-Cola. USC did not, according to a 2015 article from The State.
Emails show USC’s researchers were aware of the influence, but had come to accept it. Tommy Coggins, director of USC’s Office of Research Compliance, said the following in a 2015 email to a colleague:
“Coke has a substantial say in how (research) was conducted and how results are handled, including ownership of all (intellectual property). None of this is wrong or unusual, but it is a typical industry research agreement (contract). Also, contains a good bit of language about confidentiality and sharing results with Coke, but no bar on publication,” according to the email, which report authors obtained and published online.
Ruskin and his colleagues found the Coca-Cola agreements are “in line with standard funding agreements seen with other corporate actors,” the report said. However, that’s part of what Ruskin sees as the problem.
“That’s a symptom of the corporate corruption of science, some of which is happening at the University of South Carolina,” Ruskin said. “The implications are much broader than just these five contracts. What we’re looking at is can consumers trust research sponsored by food companies?”
In perhaps the most striking example of Coca-Cola’s influence, the company did terminate research at USC for unknown reasons. Emails obtained by the report’s authors show Coca-Cola stopped communicating with researchers without an explanation.
“As you know, the contract with Coca-Cola to develop and evaluate the Active Healthy Living Program has terminated. While I am not sure, because they have not communicated with us in several months, it appears that Coke has dropped the program. We put a lot into development of the program, and if possible, I would like to obtain/retain the intellectual property,” according to a 2017 email sent from Russell Pate, a USC exercise science professor, to fellow USC professors.
Ruskin said he and his fellow study authors never found out why the contract was terminated.
“Based on the evidence we have, it’s not clear,” why the research was shut down, Ruskin said. “We don’t know why the contract was canceled and the researchers don’t either.”