Sat, Jan 12, 2019 - Page 6 News List

Food giants undermined China’s obesity fight


China’s efforts to keep obesity in check have been undermined from the inside by the food industry, research showed.

A Harvard University expert in Chinese society traced how a group funded by Coca-Cola and other food companies enjoyed close ties to Chinese health officials.

The group helped tilt the nation’s obesity fight with the message that exercise matters more than dietary habits, which health advocates say is a way to deflect attention from food’s role in fueling obesity.

The International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) was created in 1978 by a former Coke executive and has 17 branches around the world. In China, its small but influential branch organized obesity conferences focusing on physical activity, with speakers including Coke-funded researchers and a Coke executive, according to the papers published in the BMJ and the Journal of Public Health Policy.

A national exercise program for school children called “Happy 10 Minutes” was also modeled after a pet project of the former Coke executive who founded ILSI, the papers say.

The concept might have a familiar ring for those in the US. Facing criticism over its sugary drinks in the US, Coca-Cola in 2013 ran a TV ad showing activities that can burn the “140 happy calories” in a can of Coke. The activities included walking a dog, dancing, bowling and sharing a laugh with friends.

Susan Greenhalgh, the papers’ author, said it is difficult to untangle how much of China’s emphasis on exercise in recent years can be attributed to ILSI’s influence, but added that ILSI’s activities highlight the difficulty in assessing how food makers might be skewing public policy around the world.

“There’s virtually no research on the incredibly complicated network by which ILSI Global and all its branches have been influencing obesity science,” she said.

Chinese health officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In a statement, ILSI did not directly address the research findings, but said it “does not profess to have been perfect in our 40-year history.”

It said it has instituted guidelines to ensure scientific integrity.

“The journey to best-in-class nutrition and food safety science research has been a circuitous one. Not surprisingly, there have been bumps along the way,” the statement said.

In the US, prominent politicians and groups often collaborate with food makers on high-profile campaigns to improve public health.

However, industry efforts are not always transparent and there has been growing interest in uncovering businesses’ hidden influence.

In 2015, the New York Times reported that Coca-Cola was funding a nonprofit led by obesity researchers. The Associated Press subsequently obtained e-mails showing Coke’s role in shaping the nonprofit, which the company envisioned would run a political-style campaign to counter the “shrill rhetoric” of “public health extremists.”

While the food industry’s influence in the US is well established and debated, Greenhalgh said that conflicts of interest and collaboration with industry are not seen as problems in China.

“The whole political discourse around it is totally different,” she said.

ILSI’s influence in China stemmed from its former leader, who remained a senior adviser until her death last year, Greenhalgh said.

The group still shares an office with a government health agency, but its influence might be waning without its former director, Greenhalgh added.

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