Controversial new CDC director may reconsider Big Soda’s health funding

Controversial new CDC director may reconsider Big Soda’s health funding
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Controversial new CDC director may reconsider Big Soda’s health funding

Brenda Fitzgerald, the newly appointed director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will consider allowing Coca-Cola to once again help fund the agency’s anti-obesity campaigns, according to e-mailed comments reported by the New York Times over the weekend.

Though it would be a turnabout for the agency—which ditched Coke funding in 2013—Fitzgerald’s position shouldn’t be surprising, as she has a controversial history of accepting funding from Coca-Cola. As health commissioner of Georgia from 2011 to this year, she accepted $1 million from the soda giant to fund an exercise program aimed at cutting the state’s childhood obesity rate—one of the highest in the country.

The exercise-based campaign seemed to fit well with Coca-Cola’s interests. The company has long appeared interested in shifting anti-obesity efforts toward improving physical activity levels rather than focusing on the role of diet, particularly sugary beverages. That’s despite many studies, including those by the CDC, that have found that sugar-loaded drinks are a prominent factor in childhood obesity, as well as the development of associated health conditions such as Type II diabetes, heart disease, and kidney disease. Nevertheless, in 2015, a Times investigation revealed that Coke had been secretly funding and orchestrating a network of academic nutrition researchers, which had a suspiciously keen focus on combating obesity with exercise while downplaying the role of sweetened beverages and excess calories.

The resulting cognitive dissonance from such efforts was enough to convince outgoing CDC Director Thomas Frieden to cut ties with Coke. Between 2010 and 2012, the company had provided $1.1 million to the agency, which was used in part for programs that emphasized exercise as the way to combat obesity. Frieden, who was director from 2009 to this year, squashed the funding by 2013.

“I don’t think it’s justifiable to have Coca-Cola run an obesity campaign that had an exclusive focus on physical activity,” Frieden told the Times. “I basically canceled it and didn’t renew it or have more grant agreements with them.”

Afterward, he said he approached the beverage company to discuss funding other, non-obesity related health campaigns. Little came of it, Frieden said.

According to e-mailed responses Fitzgerald sent to the Times, she is open to accepting donation again from Coke, contingent on an assessment of possible conflicts of interest. “I will continue the review process in place at CDC,” Fitzgerald wrote, “and any offers of support would be considered through this process before moving forward.”

In a comment to the Times, Coca-Cola spokesperson Ben Sheidler said the company was “not looking for any special treatment… Our preference is to work together on things, rather than fight over restrictions or taxes.”

Controversial new CDC director may reconsider Big Soda’s health funding

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