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Channel 4 Dispatches: Secrets of Coca-Cola

The Channel 4 investigation looks into Coca Cola’s fight back on the incoming sugar tax, its close ties with influential scientists and some of the private lengths they are going to undermine a raft of public policy initiatives.

The programme draws on ‘The Coke Files’ – a cache of hundreds of internal Coca-Cola emails and documents which detail the public policies Coke are fighting across the world and include private emails between Coca-Cola, academics and scientists. The Coke Files reveal:

  • Coke’s influence on scientific studies
  • Coke’s close relationships with a network of influential scientists and academics
  • The details of payments to influential experts in the UK
  • The tactics being used behind the scenes to fight against the UK’s new Sugar Tax, including meetings with MPs and civil servants
  • How Coke has helped to resist the introduction of EU legislation relating to marketing to children

The Coca Cola Company controls half the global soft drinks market; the one issue at the top of their agenda is a sugar tax.

The Coke emails reveal it has been engaged in battles to fight sugar taxes in 10 countries including the UK.

  • Leaked emails from a Senior American Coke Executive show the company boasting of support from Tory politicians:

“A campaign is underway to build a case against the tax with some promising support among Conservative Party members…Options to broaden the affected categories are being discussed if the tax cannot be defeated.”

  • Three days after this email was sent Coke met with Treasury Minister David Gauke MP the month after the announcement of the sugar tax
  • Minutes of the meeting showed that Coke recognised the British Government were tackling child obesity, but were doing it “the wrong way.” They said the sugar tax was “unfair” and “won’t work”.
  • They also managed to get a meeting with Sir Jeremy Heywood, Head of the Civil Service, where the company not only expressed their anger about the sugar tax but also threatened legal action.

Coca-Cola says is “strives to be as transparent as possible”. Since 2015, it has published a list of experts it works with, and research it funds, on the company website. They say this goes further than any other UK food and drink company.

Dispatches has obtained hundreds of emails between Coca Cola and academics across the globe - including Britain - showing just how close the drinks corporation is to a number of influential scientists.

One of the people on that list is Professor Alan Boobis from Imperial College – an expert on food safety. The emails Dispatches has obtained reveal how Professor Alan Boobis, received payment of €1,000 a day for speaking at a conference. They also reveal him asking Coke to fund a conference he was involved in, for which Coke offered $10,000.

Prior to this, Boobis served on the Committee on Toxicity which advises the FSA. He left the Committee in 2012 and subsequently took ad hoc paid work for Coca-Cola.

Dispatches has seen emails from 2013 in which Coca-Cola ask Professor Boobis for information about a further study into a sweetener (aspartame) and thanking him for his ‘very useful’ information.

In 2016 the University of Bath had a study published in a medical journal that concluded that a lack of exercise, not enough sleep and too much screen time were key factors in childhood obesity. The scientists said more work needed to be done to confirm the role of diet. The University of Bath authors made clear that the research was paid for by Coca-Cola and also declared in their paper that:

“The funder had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.”

It was the UK leg of a wider global study and our Coke Files reveal an email exchange between Coca-Cola and researchers from Louisiana State University in America that led the global study.

According to Professor Simon Cape-well these emails show “clear evidence of Coca-Cola being involved in the development and design of the study, for instance around the selection of which countries to include and which not to include”.

Email from Coca-Cola:

From: Chief Scientific & Regulatory Officer Coca Cola

Sent: May 2012

To: Scientists

looking to add Russia as well…this country is getting fatter… How much for Thailand and Russia--estimate only…

From: Chief Scientific & Regulatory Officer Coca Cola

Sent: March 2012

To: Scientists

Subject: Re: Any potential to work with Russia for ISCOLE

…Ok--so with Russia and Finland we are at 13? Or no Finland and at 12

Seriously--our CEO hates the #13…

Sugar Tax and marketing to children

40% of 11-15 year olds buy soft drinks every day in the UK.

Coca-Cola has a clear stated policy of not marketing their drinks to under 12s.

Dispatches reveals documents that show Coca-Cola’s apparent delight at fending off a potential threat of EU legislation that could have raised the age limit for children for marketing purposes to older than 12.

The leaked email includes the following:

From: Senior Coca Cola Manager

Sent: May 2016

To: [Various] Coca Cola Employees

Subject: INFORM: self regulation in advertising acknowledged by Commission proposed legislation

Dear all,

The value of self-regulation in commercial communications was acknowledged today by the European Commission and there was no age limit for children suggested on an EU level, in a proposed revision of the Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AVMSFD)…

From: Senior Coke Executive

Sent: May 2016

To: [Various] Coca Cola Employees

Subject: FW: INFORM: selfregulation in advertising acknowledged by Commission proposed legislation

This is a significant win and proof that self-regulation (EU Pledge) by industry can positively influence public policy setting in the EU, which in turn helps to frame the debate at country level.

Great work from our trade association...

The way UK sugar tax legislation is written means that there is currently no obligation on drinks companies like Coca-Cola to apply the extra cost only to high sugar drinks.

Dr James Davies MP expressed concerns that this may be a missed opportunity, because companies like Coca-Cola may not pass on the levy to consumers in the same proportion as it is applied by the Treasury. So a can of Coke could be the same price this year as next year. When pressed on this in the Childhood Obesity: Follow up at the Health Committee in February 2017 Jon Woods, General Manager, Coca-Cola Great Britain & Ireland said “I am not seeking to do anything other than exactly what you suggest, which is to pass it on as it should be, or as recommended by the Government.” However, Davies MP said he felt the response had been “slightly evasive” and that whilst there had been “a degree of commitment to pass on the cost as applied”, he was “not completely convinced that that was their intention”.

Rights to Reply:

Coca Cola: The say that the Matrix sets out “complex regulatory issues” it faced, but is now out of date and their position on several key issues has evolved. They said: “We don’t believe the UK Government’s soft drinks tax is an effective way to address obesity. We have made this view clear both in public and in private but we have never prepared legal action.”

“In the UK we don’t buy any advertising targeting children under 16 and we have supported the recent revisions to the UK Committee of Advertising Practice’s non-broadcast marketing code which defines a child as being under 16.”

“We don’t believe the UK Government’s soft drinks tax is an effective way to address obesity. We have made this view clear both in public and in private but we have never prepared legal action.”

Coca Cola also told us the experts they work with express their own opinion drawn from years of knowledge and research, and any payments to them are to cover their time.

Professor Boobis told Dispatches the information he provided to Coke was in the public domain.

He said he had never received any funding from Coca-Cola for his research and that his links to Coke have always been made clear in his declarations of interest.

As to his work with Coke, he said the payments were due to his knowledge in the area and his views were his own – Coke had no input into the content.

The FSA study was published in March 2015. A month later Boobis rejoined the Committee on Toxicity as Chairman and ended all his links with Coca Cola.

University of Bath: “The study was overseen by an External Advisory Board of international academics… at arm’s length to assess the progress, rigour and objectivity of the study… The study was approved by our Research Ethics Approval Committee for Health and published… following independent and expert peer-review.”

Dispatches: Secrets of Coca-Cola is on Monday 27 March at 8pm on Channel 4

Reporter: Antony Barnett

Exec Producer: Nicole Kleeman

Director: Victoria Hollingsworth

Prod Co: Firecrest Films

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