Coca-Cola is quietly shaping China's health policies: report

A new report says Coca-Cola has shaped obesity science and policy in China.

Soft drink giant the Coca-Cola Company has quietly been influencing China's health policies and is likely benefiting as a result, according to a new report.

The report, published in the medical journal BMJ, uncovered a complex web of institutional, financial and personal links that Coca-Cola has used to push its agenda in the world's most populous country.

It comes as China struggles with an obesity epidemic. In 2011, 42.3 percent of Chinese adults were overweight or obese, up from 20.5 per cent in 1991.

Lead author Susan Greenhalgh of Harvard University claimed Coke has "cleverly manoeuvered itself into a position of behind-the-scenes power that ensures that government policy to fight the growing obesity epidemic does not undermine its interests".

A Coca-Cola display at a Chinese mall.
A Coca-Cola display at a Chinese mall.

She said Coke has done so primarily by leveraging the Chinese branch of an organisation it helped create "to advance its interests around the world," the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI).

The ILSI was set up by a Coke executive 40 years ago and ILSI's China branch is housed within the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, a unit of the government health ministry.

"The staff of the industry funded ILSI-China have unparalleled access to government officials, and the organisation established itself as a premiere scientific body capable of providing access to the best that Western science has to offer," the report said.

Over recent years, ILSI-China's obesity activities moved from a focus on nutrition to physical activity, in line with Coke's position that an active lifestyle was key to tackling obesity, the report said.

"Hard-hitting dietary policies recommended by the World Health Organization - taxing sugary drinks and restricting food advertising to children - were missing, and national plans and targets emphasised physical fitness over dietary restrictions".

China is struggling with an obesity epidemic.
China is struggling with an obesity epidemic.

These plans and targets were consistent with Coke's "energy balance" perspective, the report claims.

It also found obesity meetings sponsored or co-sponsored by ILSI-China were packed with presentations by experts with financial ties to Coke or ILSI.

Ms Greenhalgh said that "in putting its massive resources behind only one side of the science, and with no other parties sufficiently resourced to champion more balanced solutions that included regulation of the food industry, the company made China safe for Coke".

SBS News has contacted Coca-Cola for comment.

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