Last week’s breathless front-page “Exclusive” in Fairfax’s lead publications about “What Coca-Cola isn’t telling you about its health funding in Australia” is as bewildering as it is disappointing.

The claim is bewildering because it is an attempt to build a case for a conspiracy against researchers who are following the government’s (indeed the Prime Minister’s) urging that researchers seek closer links with industry for alternative funds for research (rather than the usual NHMRC/ARC grants) and to promote greater research translation.

Disappointing because the story shows many elements of sloppy journalism: beat-ups, selective quoting and repetition of unproven “facts”. But even more disappointing because there is a smell of hypocrisy about much of the protest.

The Fairfax article begins:

“Coca-Cola is bankrolling a campaign to focus the discussion about obesity in Australia on exercise and away from diet as the solution to the health epidemic.”

Although Coke has said it will release details of all grants made to Australian researchers, the company has yet to do so. Nevertheless, the article had specific details of grants made to two researchers, Jeff Coombes (University of Queensland) and Tim Olds (University of South Australia).

Was this information a scoop as a result of hard journalistic sleuthing or a drop from jealous (or zealous) colleagues?

Regardless, when Coke publishes full details of its support for researchers, it will be hard to hide the blushes. Many of the most enthusiastic finger-pointers and callers for bans on those receiving Coke dollars might also be found to have supped from the red-and-white cup — or others very like it.

Coke’s support for researchers has extended into many areas, including events like conferences, funding for research institutes and into supporting interventions that have been recommended by research findings.

The issue of accepting funding from industry is rightly hotly debated among researchers for its obvious risks (it was not so long ago that a leading drug manufacturer was found to have been financing the publication of a quasi-scientific journal to falsely promote its own products — and it had leading Australian researchers on the editorial board).

But where do you draw the line? And what is appropriate acknowledgement of commercial support?

A few years ago, Sports Medicine Australia (SMA) accepted funding from Coke to support the staging of the Third International Conference on Physical Activity and Public Health in Sydney. At the time, one of the more pleasing aspects of the funding was Coke’s fairly modest requests for branding and other recognition at the event.

This was perceived as Coke being sensitive to the concerns many researchers had about accepting the company’s funding, but now such sensitivity is being represented as a conspiracy to conceal Coke’s support. (It was never concealed.)

It is worth making the point that many of those with reservations were happy to attend the event and accept the additional benefits that the Coke sponsorship delivered, such as additional overseas speakers, lower-priced registration fees and all-inclusive social events.

It is also worth repeating the point that commercial entities do not offer sponsorship or hand out money for altruistic reasons. There has to be something in it for them.

And in a competitive environment for those funds, those seeking the funding often do better if they can clearly articulate the benefits for the funder.

In pitching to Coke (and similar organisations) for support, SMA would strongly make the point that while Coke was under fire for contributing to a growing obesity problem, the funding would help promote the fact that physical activity and sport could help mitigate these problems. It was why Coke funded the Olympics, so why not go a step further and fund physical activity research?

By August 2015, such an approach was being represented in The New York Times (and repeated without checking ever since) as evidence of a conspiracy between researchers and Coke to downplay the role of inappropriate eating in obesity.

Usefully for the conspiracy theorists, there has, for many years, been a level of tension between diet versus physical activity researchers about the relative merits and roles of each in health generally and obesity prevention specifically.

Physical activity researchers often felt themselves the poor cousins in this relationship, and one response was the formation by a number of researchers of the “Global Energy Balance Network” (GEBN). The network aimed to get a greater focus on the role of physical activity as opposed to just diet.

But partly by selectively quoting from a video on the network’s website by one of the founders, American physical activity research Professor Steve Blair, The New York Times was able to construct such a compelling narrative of corporate and researcher inappropriate behavior, that Coke responded by completely withdrawing from all funding of research and research-related activities.

The day after the NYT article ran, the president of the GEBN, Jim Hill, put out the following statement:

“[I] can say unequivocally that diet is a critical component of weight control, as are exercise, stress management, sleep, and environmental and other factors. The problem does not have a single cause and cannot be addressed by singling out only one of those factors in the solution.”

What now? Have they cut the head off a dangerous beast, or is it just one fewer corporation to help fund research?

And why the fanfare about Coke specifically?

Over the past 15 years, Sports Medicine Australia has accepted funding from a diverse range of corporate supporters, including Asics, Beiersdorf, Pfizer, Nestle, Mars, Novartis, Mead Johnson, Victor and Coca-Cola.

Such relationships and reliance on the funding generated is part and parcel of life for most NGOs and increasingly for researchers.

Sydney University’s prestigious Boden Research Institute, which acknowledges its sponsorship from Coke and others, is a good example of how researchers are able to source funding from government, corporate and philanthropic sources.

Professors Coombes, Olds, Blair and others should be congratulated and supported for their capacity to source research funding outside of the increasingly constricted NHMRC/ARC grant cycle.

And their critics should have a good look at the support they have accepted before they become too holier than thou.

One last point: no one appears to have any issues with government-funded research being supported by tobacco dollars — because the money is “sanitised” by being taken as a levy by the government and distributed through a government agency.

Could this model be applied more widely? Can we revisit the debate on a “sugar tax” to fund public health research and interventions (that would naturally include physical activity as well as diet)?

*Gary Moorhead was CEO of Sports Medicine Australia from 1999-2009.

Peter Fray

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