Some 30 years ago, before most Yale undergrads were born, Coca-Cola and Pepsi engaged in a fierce battle for a place in the American consumer’s chalice. The 1980s were a weird time, but the Cola War that Coke and Pepsi fought out on-screen, in print and at the supermarket seemed not out of the ordinary.
In 2015, though, we’re fighting a Cola War of a different kind.
This past week, Coca-Cola disclosed that the company has spent around $120 million on funding programs, research, partnerships and sponsorships that work to promote health and combat the obesity crisis. The announcement comes after New York Times reporting exposed the company’s attempts to obfuscate the sugar beverage’s role in expanding the American waistline.
The release of information was an exercise in transparency for an industry long shrouded in smoke and mirrors. It gives a glimpse into how soda companies can seem like they’re advocating on behalf of the public, but are actually propping up groups and funding research to spread a particular agenda.
New York City provides an apt case study. When the “soda ban” — the restriction of larger portion sugar-sweetened beverages in New York City restaurants — was introduced, groups like “New Yorkers for Beverage Choices” called for its demise, while public health advocates praised the move. These “Beverage Choice” shadow groups serve to spread the idea that laws that make it harder to drink sugar water are draconian, rather than highlight their potential public health benefits. In actuality, “New Yorkers for Beverage Choices” was the puppet mastery of the soda industry.
Coke’s disclosure shines light on the work of more recent front groups. One, called the “Global Energy Balance Network,” purports that obesity is a simple problem of exercise, rather than a more complex problem. It’s one of a bevy of pseudoscientific principles that the industry uses to blame rising obesity rates on obese individuals, rather than examining the disease’s structural roots.
Some of Coke’s partnerships have been academic in nature, which is especially upsetting — one would hope that scientists would conduct medical research without undue business influence. We’d like to think that obesity isn’t funded by the institutions that profit from selling junk food. We’d especially like to think that a place like Yale would be exempt from such a conflict of interest.
History suggests this is not the case. Coke’s disclosure is only a recent example of a long pattern of soda industry mischief. But it brings to mind a not-so-distant dance that Yale had with Big Soda.
In 2009, YaleNews announced that PepsiCo partnered with Yale’s medical school to promote research that, it claimed, would improve health through proper nutrition. Fellows under the partnership would be designated “PepsiCo Fellows,” and would “focus on the development of healthier food and beverage products that can improve people’s overall diets.” The pitch sounds eerily similar to Coke’s infiltration of the ivory tower.
Pepsi’s Yale ties run deeper, though. Indra Nooyi SOM ’80 served as a member of the Corporation from 2002 until last year. Undoubtedly renowned for her business acumen, Nooyi nevertheless sparked the ire of the public health world when she claimed that the products PepsiCo sells — the calorie-dense snacks, the sugary beverages and everything in between — don’t contribute to chronic disease.
Not all Yale graduates or business affiliates will have sterling reputations, and not everything they say will be savory. (To assume that Yale would make no connections to industry would be egregious — we’ve got a School of Management, after all.) Yet by making partnerships with companies like Pepsi without scrutinizing them, Yale is complicit in their troubling behavior.
This is what makes Yale’s acceptance of PepsiCo funding five years ago — and, indeed, its acceptance of any corporate funding henceforth — particularly problematic. Even if a philanthropic donation claims to be neutral or without some specious purpose, is it still somehow tarnished?
Across the country, cities are passing laws that make it harder for soda companies to advertise in certain spaces. Federal legislation has recently allowed the United States Department of Agriculture to regulate the influence of soda industry marketing in school settings. The laws reflect public health wisdom on soda and its discontents: It isn’t healthy, and its consumption needs to be curtailed. Yale can catch up, too.
As for Big Soda, it’s only a matter of time before the fountains dry up.
Austin Bryniarski is a senior in Calhoun College. His column runs on Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .