Obesity is a serious problem in China. It is the country that has the most obese children and 42% of Chinese adults are overweight, double the number two decades ago, according to the latest data from the World Health Organization (WHO).
A study by Susan Greenhalgh, a professor in the Department of Anthropology at Harvard University, revealed that the cola giant has influenced health policies and habits in China in the last 20 years.
Through a network of institutional, financial and personal networks, the firm has promoted the message that physical exercise is more important than reducing sugar in the diet.
"Our research indicates that Coca-Cola has worked quietly to influence Chinese health policy for two decades for its own benefit," says the researcher.
“Coca-Cola has long promoted the idea that exercise is more important than diet in solving the obesity epidemic. The emphasis of the multinational in the exercise is reflected in the indicators and objectives of the national health plans and policies ”, he details
“This emphasis is also seen in some of the specific messages used in China's policies:energy balance, eat and move in balance, make exercise a part of medical care; and in the absence of measures recommended by the WHO, such as taxes on sugary drinks and the regulation of the soft drink market aimed at children ”, he adds.
Network of institutional links
Greenhalgh found that between 1999 and 2015 obesity-related activities organized by the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) shifted from a focus on nutrition to physical activity, in line with Coca-Cola's position that a lifestyle Active living was key to fighting obesity.
It also noted that ILSI-China sponsored or co-sponsored obesity meetings were filled with presentations from experts with financial ties to Coca-Cola or ILSI. These presentations, focused on the science of physical activity rather than nutrition, also benefited the interests of the multinational.
“By supporting with its resources only the science side (that of sports), and without any other party with sufficient resources to advocate more balanced solutions that include the regulation of the food industry, the company made China a safe market for Coca-Cola ”, argues Greenhalgh, pointing out that ILSI-China is financed by several dozen companies, including the soft drink brand.
"There are no high-impact dietary policies recommended by the WHO, such as the 20% tax on sugary drinks and the restriction on advertising of products for children."
China profits too
“China benefits from the programs ofCorporate Social Responsibility of Coca-Cola, including investments in public health projects that promote exercise, ”says the researcher.
Although the effect that the company has on government policy cannot be measured with precision, the researcher points out that “the finding is important for China because the issue of Coca-Cola –conflicts of interest in the financing of health research– has received very little attention in the country ”.
"With no one to complain to about this corporate bias in science and policy, the size and consequences of China's obesity epidemic are likely to continue to worsen," he says.
"The Chinese government needs to add this issue - corporate bias in science - to the set of ethical issues it is tackling in healthcare," Greenhalgh concludes.
Greenhalgh, S. “Making China safe for Coke: how Coca-Cola shaped obesity science and policy in China”.The BMJ.Jan 10, 2019
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