Industry money was used to covertly influence journalists with the message that exercise is a bigger problem than sugar consumption in the obesity epidemic, documents obtained under freedom of information laws show. The documents detail how Coca-Cola funded journalism conferences at a US university in an attempt to create favourable press coverage of sugar sweetened drinks. When challenged about funding of the series of conferences, the academics involved weren’t forthcoming about industry involvement.
For drinks manufacturers such as Coca-Cola the idea that consuming their products is fine as long as you exercise—reinforced with expensive advertising campaigns associated with sport—has been an important one. As Yoni Freedhoff, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Ottawa, told The BMJ, “For Coca-Cola the ‘energy balance’ message has been a crucial one to cultivate, as its underlying inference is that, even for soda drinkers, obesity is more a consequence of inactivity than it is of regularly drinking liquid candy.”
The six figure bill for funding these journalism conferences was more than repaid in favourable press coverage, say critics. Documented evidence of the industry’s covert influence on the media is rare. In 2004, researchers examined secret documents made public during tobacco litigation. Attempting to derail the effect of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s 1993 report on secondhand smoke, the tobacco industry successfully placed stories in major print publications about the report’s “scientific weakness” to help “build considerable reasonable doubt . . . particularly among consumers,” the researchers wrote.1 They concluded that even journalists can fall victim to well orchestrated public relations efforts, regardless of the quality of the science used in these PR exercises.