Profits Over Health

Two stories came out this week that suggested to me that some companies are more concerned about the financial status of their firm than the health status of
its customers.

Anahad O’Connor wrote an article in The New York Times that reports on how Coca Cola is funding research to support the notion that exercise plays a more important role in preventing obesity compared to diet. Coke has provided financial and logistical support to a new nonprofit organization called the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN).

“Coca-Cola’s sales are slipping (in the last two decades, consumption of full-calorie sodas by the average American has dropped by 25 percent), and there’s this huge political and public backlash against soda, with every major city trying to do something to curb consumption,” said Michele Simon, a public health lawyer. “This is a direct response to the ways that the company is losing. They’re desperate to stop the bleeding.”

Researchers affiliated with the group said that Coke had no control over its work or message and that they saw no problem with the company’s support because they had been transparent about it.

Funding from the food industry is not uncommon in scientific research, but studies suggest that the funds tend to bias findings. A recent analysis of beverage studies found that those funded by Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, the American Beverage Association and the sugar industry were five times more likely to find no link between sugary drinks and weight gain than studies whose authors reported no financial conflicts.

While I certainly believe that exercise is a key component of a healthy lifestyle, and is in many ways a miracle drug, I think that a poor diet is by far the biggest contributor to the obesity epidemic, and not a lack of exercise. The New York Times recently had an article that discussed this notion in more detail.

The second article was written by Deena Shanker on the Quartz web site. In the article, Shanker notes that the World Health Organization International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is expected to release a report in November saying that red meat is linked to cancer.

As you might expect, the meat industry is quite concerned about the impact such a report would have on the sale of red meat. Betsy Booren, vice president for scientific affairs at the North American Meat Institute, indicated her group would fight the classification as it did with the US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s recent report that said healthier diets are lower in red and processed meats. That advice, which was supported by many health experts, caused an uproar from Big Meat.

According to Boreen, such a report from the IARC is “… our 12-alarm fire, because if they determine that red and processed meat causes cancer—and I think that they will—that moniker will stick around for years. It could take decades and billions of dollars to change that.”

I find it depressing that firms are willing to spend millions of dollars to fight the growing evidence as to what types of foods are not not good for our health.

But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised; we saw this happen before with the tobacco companies. The evidence was overwhelming regarding the nasty health effects of smoking, yet people continue to smoke.

My guess is that the same outcome may happen with the soda and meat industries. Even if firms in these industries are required in the future to have package warnings that drinking soda causes obesity or that eating meat causes cancer, people will continue to consume such products.

So if label warnings don’t work, what should we do?

I’ve offered my suggestions before in a post that talks about the use of fines and taxes as a way to control human behavior, in particular negative human behavior.

I look forward to seeing what the IARC recommendation is, and just as curious to see how the meat industry responds to it. I also look forward to seeing what type of research comes out of the GEBN, and see if it goes counter to some well-established research about the problems of excessive sugar consumption.

In the meantime, why not give yourself the opportunity to be ahead of the curve on this one, and cut back on your consumption of sugar and red meat.

While the soda and meat industries may not be happy with you, your body certainly will.

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