Cristin Kearns, a fellow at University of California, San Francisco, recently uncovered documents that reveal decades of deception and bribery in the sugar industry that implicates elite professors and the United States government. These revelations not only shed light on the way corporations wield power in American politics and culture; they also have significant legal ramifications.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys have struggled for years to hold the sugar and sugar-sweetened beverage industries accountable for their misleading advertising, targeting of children, and disproportionate effect on the United States’ obesity epidemic. In case after case, Big Sugar has successfully argued that consumers need to take responsibility for their own nutritional choices, even bad ones.
This report by Ms. Kearns adds a new element to the story: deception.
Ms. Kearns’ research begins in 1964, when John Hickson, a top sugar executive, along with other industry leaders, grew fearful that new reports linking high-sugar diets to heart disease would damage their bottom line. To preempt this outcome, they launched a counteroffensive by hiring Harvard University professors to, in the words of Hickson, “refute our detractors.” In a report published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1967, the scientists largely dismissed health risks related to sugar and instead named a new heart disease culprit: saturated fat.
Dr. Mark Hegsted, one of the report’s co-writers, went on to become the head of the Department of Agriculture, where he helped draft our government’s dietary guidelines. Unsurprisingly, the guidelines minimized the dangers of sugar. As a result, millions of people transitioned to low-fat, high sugar diets, a development that experts now believe helped drive United States’ obesity crisis.
Ms. Kearns’s findings expose the sugar industry’s parallels to the tobacco industry. From the 1950s to the 1990s, plaintiffs’ lawyers tried unsuccessfully to hold tobacco producers accountable for the various cancers their products caused. It was not until researchers discovered the so-called “smoking gun” evidence that tobacco executives had intentionally deceived customers into thinking there was no link between tobacco and cancer, that a settlement was reached.
Michael T. Roberts, the director of the UCLA Program for Food Law and Policy, argues that while it remains to be seen whether “the sugar-sweetened beverage industry’s manipulation of scientific research constitutes a smoking gun equivalent to that used in the tobacco litigation,” it is clear that the industry has not played fair, misleading consumers and public health.
If Ms. Kearns’ research makes it possible to find the sugar industry liable for its role in our nation’s obesity crisis, litigation can help transfer the cost of obesity and diabetes back to the sugar industry, rather than to individual taxpayers.
Until that happens, the sugar industry continues to manipulate scientific data. A new report by the New York Times exposed how Coca-Cola formed the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN) to advocate on behalf of sweetened beverage producers. The nonprofit argued that the key to weight loss was not reducing calories, as most health experts urge, but rather “maintaining an active lifestyle and eating more calories,” a finding that would help Coca-Cola’s business.
The scientists involved with this advocacy were on the company’s payroll: Steven Blair, head of the initiative, received more than $3.5 million from Coca-Cola for research since 2008 and Gregory Hand, Dean of the West Virginia School of Public Health, received over 1.3 million from the company since 2011.
Industry-funded research continues to impact Americans’ ideas about health and dieting despite its clear bias. In one meta-study, it was demonstrated that research funded by Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and the American Beverage Association were five times more likely to find no link between sugary drinks and weight gain than studies whose authors reported no financial conflicts of interest. Fortunately, the GEBN was discontinued after the Time’s article.
Corporations can and should be held accountable through the legal system for deceptive practices. If plaintiffs’ lawyers are successful in finding the sugar industry liable for their actions dating back to the 1960s, it may form a new precedent to go after dishonest firms.
Carroll, Aaron, “To Lose Weight, Eating Less is Far More Important Than Exercising More.” The New York Times, 15 June 2015.
Domonoske, Camila, “50 Years Ago, Sugar Industry Quietly Paid Scientists to Point Blame at Fat.” National Public Radio, 13 September 2016.
O’Connor, Anahad, “How the Sugar Industry Shifted Blame to Fat.” The New York Times, 12 September 2016.
O’Connor, Anahad, “Coca-Cola Funds Scientists Who Shift Blame for Obesity Away From Bad Diets.” The New York Times, 9 August, 2015.
Roberts, Michael and Aguirre, Emilie, “Science report scandal could lead to lawsuits that hold sugary beverage industry accountable.” Daily News, 1 November 2016.