The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) should be cracking down on corporations promoting products linked to poor health and disease, including soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages. Instead, they appear to have taken the industry, and one of its flagship companies, Coca-Cola, under their protective wing. U.S. Right to Know (USRTK), a nonprofit consumer and public health watchdog organization, is conducting an investigation to find out just how cozy the ties are between Coca-Cola and the CDC.
They filed six Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with the CDC to look into its relationship with Coca-Cola in December 2017. While the CDC acknowledged their receipt just days later, they have not provided a response — a requirement for federal agencies within 20 business days of receiving an FOIA request. Now USRTK is suing the CDC due to its failure to comply with the FOIA requests and provide documents in response. USRTK co-director Gary Ruskin said in a news release:1
“We are suing the CDC to uncover the extent and nature of the CDC’s relationship with Coca-Cola … Just as it is wrong for the CDC to assist tobacco companies, it is also wrong for CDC to assist obesogenic companies like Coca-Cola.”
What Have 19 Former FOIA Requests Revealed About the CDC?
Since 2016, USRTK has filed 19 FOIA requests with the CDC, which have helped to expose a number of concerning ties between the CDC and Coca-Cola. For instance, former CDC Director Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald received $1 million in funding from Coca-Cola2 to combat childhood obesity during her six-year stint as commissioner of Georgia’s public health department and has a history of promoting the soda industry’s alternative facts.
Her Coke-funded anti-obesity campaign focused on exercise. None of the recommendations involved cutting down on soda and junk food, yet research shows exercise cannot counteract the ill effects of a high-sugar (i.e., high soda) diet.
At the time of her appointment to CDC director, Jim O’Hara, director of health promotion policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest stated, “We hope Dr. Fitzgerald, as head of CDC, avoids partnering with Coke on obesity for the same reason she would avoid partnering with the tobacco industry on lung cancer prevention.”3
Ironically, Fitzgerald reportedly owned stocks in no less than five different tobacco companies, plus drug companies, when she was appointed CDC director. As part of her ethics agreement, she sold those stocks when accepting her new position. But then, mere months into the job, she went and bought stocks in Japan Tobacco International (JTI), one of the largest tobacco companies in the world.
She also bought stocks in a dozen other health-related companies, including Merck, Bayer, Humana and U.S. Foods Holding Corp. Politico exposed Fitzgerald’s tobacco investments, which led to her handing in her resignation a day later.4 Conflicts of interest seem to be a pattern at the CDC. Fitzgerald actually took the place of Barbara Bowman, Ph.D., former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention.
Bowman reportedly aided a Coca-Cola representative in efforts to influence World Health Organization (WHO) officials to relax recommendations on sugar limits.5 She left the agency unexpectedly, two days after her close ties with Coca-Cola were revealed.
Bowman, however, was not the only CDC official looking out for Coca-Cola. Uncovered emails also suggest that Michael Pratt, senior adviser for global health in the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion at the CDC, has also promoted and led research for the soda giant. According to the Huffington Post:6
“Pratt did not respond to questions about his work, which includes a position as a professor at Emory University, a private research university in Atlanta that has received millions of dollars from the Coca-Cola Foundation and more than $100 million from famed longtime Coca-Cola leader Robert W. Woodruff and Woodruff’s brother George.
Indeed, Coca-Cola’s financial support for Emory is so strong that the university states on its website that ‘it’s unofficially considered poor school spirit to drink other soda brands on campus.’”
CDC Receives Funding From Coca-Cola — How Much?
The CDC receives funding from Coca-Cola via the CDC Foundation. USRTK reported that the CDC Foundation received $1.1 million from Coca-Cola from 2010 to 2012, but contributions after that date have not been disclosed. While the CDC Foundation discloses contributions made by Coca-Cola in 2015, 2016 and 2017, the amounts are not made public.7
Another recent scandal to face the agency is the apparent banning of a handful of words and phrases from budget documents, including the terms “evidence-based” and “science-based.” The New York Times reported:8
“The news set off an uproar among advocacy groups … who denounced any efforts to muzzle federal agencies or censor their language. The Times confirmed some details of the report with several officials, although a few suggested that the proposal was not so much a ban on words but recommendations to avoid some language to ease the path toward budget approval … A former federal official, who asked not to be named, called the move unprecedented.”
It’s clear, nonetheless, that conflicts of interest have been corrupting the CDC’s mission for some time. In 2016, a group of senior CDC scientists even sent a letter to the CDC raising concerns about the conflicts of interest and industry ties that appear to be so common among CDC leaders.9 The group goes by the name CDC Scientists Preserving Integrity, Diligence and Ethics in Research (CDC SPIDER); individuals left their names out for fear of retaliation. The letter begins:10
“It appears that our mission is being influenced and shaped by outside parties and rogue interests. It seems that our mission and Congressional intent for our agency is being circumvented by some of our leaders. What concerns us most, is that it is becoming the norm and not the rare exception. Some senior management officials at CDC are clearly aware and even condone these behaviors.
… Some staff are intimidated and pressed to do things they know are not right. We have representatives from across the agency that witness this unacceptable behavior. It occurs at all levels and in all of our respective units. These questionable and unethical practices threaten to undermine our credibility and reputation as a trusted leader in public health.”