Sweet deal soured: Colorado’s School of Medicine returns $1 million of funding to Coca-Cola

Signal of change / Sweet deal soured: Colorado’s School of Medicine returns $1 million of funding to Coca-Cola

By Will Ingram / 30 Dec 2015

The University of Colorado School of Medicine is returning a $1 million gift of funding to The Coca-Cola Company as a result of unwelcome public attention after a New York Times article. “The funding source has distracted attention from its worthwhile goal” the School said in a statement.

The corporation donated the money in 2014 to set up a research group called the Global Energy Balance Network to explore how exercise, rather than reducing calorie intake, can be a solution to obesity. Such an objective runs contrary to the official stance of the Surgeon General (the operational head of the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps) that “reducing consumption of sodas and juices with added sugars” should be a priority for the health of the nation.

Coca-Cola has donated over $100 million on other professional health research initiatives, as clearly outlined on the company’s website. The American Academy of Paediatrics and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics received $3 million and $1.7 million respectively. Both Academies have also cut their financial ties with Coca-Cola.

Image credit: .freeside. / flickr

So what?

Concerns about private funding of research for the public good include a prioritisation of diseases that affect non-minority communities, political bias (see the Koch brothers) and a promotion of business interests.

Despite this bias, private funding has a history of providing important money when government coffers fall short. Do we need to think about mechanisms that might stop funders influencing research outcomes? Or perhaps reassure the public that they are not actually influencing outcomes?

Businesses remain at arm’s reach from the laboratory even with such direct funding, yet perhaps it is never possible to distance them completely. A 2007 meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Public Health demonstrated that studies funded by the food and drink industry reported significantly smaller impacts of soft-drink consumption on health and obesity. Is this inevitable, or could such influence be avoided?

We saw the scientific world throw off the tobacco industry after the evidence on health became too compelling. Additionally, as the scientific and political consensus around climate change is nearing completion we may witness funds dry up for contrarian research institutes.

Will the University of Colorado’s decision mark a tipping point in health research funding as well?

Sources

The New York Times (November 6, 2015) University returns $1 million grand to Coca-Cola
The Consumerist (November 9, 2015) University Med School Returns $1M Gift To Coca-Cola

What might the implications of this be? What related signals of change have you seen?

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