Public Meets Private: Conversations Between Coca-Cola and the CDC

January 2019 | Nason Maani Hessari, Gary Ruskin, Martin McKee, David Stuckler | Original Scholarship

Policy Points:

  • There is growing understanding of how manufacturers of harmful products influence health policy. The strategies, approaches, and influences from such manufacturers that are detrimental to health have been termed the “corporate” or “commercial” determinants of health. However, while partnerships with the tobacco industry are clearly unacceptable for public health organizations, ties to other industries continue to be pursued.
  • Such partnerships may influence health organizations in a number of ways detrimental to population health. However, with the exception of tobacco industry tactics as revealed by internal documents, we know relatively little about how this influence operates.
  • This article uses emails between the Coca-Cola Company and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which we obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, to explore the nature of corporate influence, conflicts of interest, and lobbying “in their own words,” and highlights the need for greater transparency and clearer policies on engaging with such industries.

Context: There is a continuing debate about the appropriateness of contacts between manufacturers of some harmful products and health researchers, as well as practitioners and policymakers. Some argue that such contacts may be a means of exerting undue influence, while others present them as an opportunity to pursue shared health goals. This article examines interactions between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Coca-Cola Company (Coca-Cola) as revealed by communications obtained through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

Methods: We sent 10 US FOIA requests in 2016/2017 for communications between employees at the CDC and Coca-Cola.We then performed a thematic content analysis of the documents provided.

Findings: Of our 10 FOIA requests, 3 requests are still pending (at the time of this publication); 5 were rejected as too broad or because no records were found; and 3 returned 295 pages from 86 emails. The CDC withheld 102 pages to “protect commercial or financial information which is privileged or confidential.” The returned emails demonstrate three main themes in Coca-Cola’s contact with CDC employees: to gain and expand access, to lobby, and to shift attention and blame away from sugar-sweetened beverages.

Conclusions: The emails we obtained using FOIA requests reveal efforts by Coca-Cola to lobby the CDC to advance corporate objectives rather than health, including to influence the World Health Organization. Our findings provide a rare example of the ways in which corporate interests attempt to influence public health practitioners “in their own words,” and they demonstrate a need for clearer policies on avoiding partnerships with manufacturers of harmful products.

Keywords: commercial determinants of health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, government transparency, public health.

Read on Wiley Online Library

Volume 97, Issue 1 (pages 74-90)
DOI: 10.1111/1468-0009.12368
Published in 2019