Coke CEO Kent addresses criticism in wake of obesity research report

November 23, 2013 Alpharetta - Movie guests fill up their drinks at Coca-Cola Freestyle stations at Marketplace Concession area at AMC North Point Mall 12 at North Point Mall in Alpharetta on Saturday, November 23, 2013. With big screen TVs and surround sound, consumers increasingly have chosen to watch movies at home instead of going out. But theater owners are striking back. They are remodeling their facilities to add chairs that recline like beds, redesign concessions menus with restaurant-worthy dishes and load up bars with drinks that go beyond Coke and Pepsi. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

November 23, 2013 Alpharetta – Movie guests fill up their drinks at Coca-Cola Freestyle stations at Marketplace Concession area at AMC North Point Mall 12 at North Point Mall in Alpharetta on Saturday, November 23, 2013. With big screen TVs and surround sound, consumers increasingly have chosen to watch movies at home instead of going out. But theater owners are striking back. They are remodeling their facilities to add chairs that recline like beds, redesign concessions menus with restaurant-worthy dishes and load up bars with drinks that go beyond Coke and Pepsi. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

For days, Atlanta-based Coca-Cola has faced intense criticism for its involvement in and funding of a non-profit that puts the focus on lack of exercise over eating habits as the root-cause of obesity and diseases like diabetes.

On Wednesday, Coke Chairman and CEO Muhtar Kent responded, pledging in a Wall Street Journal op-ed to do better. Kent said the way Coke has engaged in the debate over the global obesity epidemic “is not working.”

Coca-Cola Chairman and CEO Muhtar Kent

Coca-Cola Chairman and CEO Muhtar Kent

The New York Times first reported Aug. 9 Coke’s support of the Global Energy Balance Network, which promotes the idea that people are putting too much emphasis on what they consume, rather than the role of exercise to reducing obesity.

The group bills itself as a not-for-profit “dedicated to identifying and implementing innovative solutions – based on the science of energy balance – to prevent and reduce diseases associated with inactivity, poor nutrition and obesity.”

Health experts have called Global Energy Balance Network message misleading, and that a poor diet cannot be overcome solely by working out.

In the immediate aftermath of the Times report, Coke struck a defiant tone, defending its support of Global Energy Balance Network and claiming in part that the Times story was inaccurate.

“At Coke, we believe that a balanced diet and regular exercise are two key ingredients for a healthy lifestyle and that is reflected in both our long-term and short-term business actions,” Ed Hays, Coke’s Chief Technical Officer, said in a memo last week, as reported by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

In his op-ed, however, Kent took a more conciliatory tone:

Our company has been accused of shifting the debate to suggest that physical activity is the only solution to the obesity crisis. There also have been reports accusing us of deceiving the public about our support of scientific research.

We have read and reflected on the recent news stories and opinions, online conversations and questions from our own family and friends. The characterization of our company does not reflect our intent or our values.

I am disappointed that some actions we have taken to fund scientific research and health and well-being programs have served only to create more confusion and mistrust. I know our company can do a better job engaging both the public-health and scientific communities—and we will.

By supporting research and nonprofit organizations, we seek to foster more science-based knowledge to better inform the debate about how best to deal with the obesity epidemic. We have never attempted to hide that. However, in the future we will act with even more transparency as we refocus our investments and our efforts on well-being.

Kent went on to announced some changes in the op-ed, among them: creating an “oversight committee of independent experts to advise and provide governance on company investments in academic research.”

Said Kent:

As we continue to learn, it is my hope that our critics will receive us with an open mind. At times we will agree and at times we will passionately disagree. The one thing we all have in common—we care.

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