Photo by form PxHere.

September 23, 2020; Harvard Gazette

In an interview with the Harvard Gazette, anthropologist Susan Greenhalgh, the John King and Wilma Cannon Fairbank Research Professor of Chinese Society at Harvard University, discusses two studies she has done about how Coca-Cola influenced policy through its creation and use of the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), a nonprofit “research” institute that acted in support of the industry to influence obesity science.

The first study, completed last year, reveals how the Coca-Cola Co. worked through ILSI, establishing and using the nonprofit to produce science that supported its corporate interests. The second, published recently in the Journal of Health Policy, Politics, and Law, dives more deeply into how the two groups worked in tandem to alter public policy.

Greenhalgh says in the interview about the first study that though the big overarching finding was the incredible complexity and sophistication of the organization, she also isolated four characteristics of the organization that “enabled it to serve industry interests while appearing to serve the public.”

ILSI has a dual character—visible and invisible, public and private—and a host of informal, hidden mechanisms by which companies can influence the science. But there are two more as well. One is a hierarchical global structure that concentrated power in DC and made the branches subject to the authority of ILSI-Global. Last but not least are exclusionary rules of participation. Participation in ILSI events—especially by speakers—was by invitation only, creating a quasi-closed world of ILSI science in which critics of corporate intervention in science were not invited. They were excluded by definition.

The second study details how Coca-Cola captured the “scientific” narrative so that it would support corporate goals. She tells the Gazette:

You can find Coke’s fingerprints on everything from framing the obesity problem and solution as matters primarily of physical activity, to naming the key, industry-friendly actors in the policy process, to creating activity-focused policies and programs. You can see Coke’s involvement too in the construction of the scientific rationales to support the physical-activity solution, primarily “energy-balance science,” which says you can eat as many calories as you wish, as long as you burn them off. Finally, you can detect Coke’s role in incorporating these activity-centered approaches into Chinese policy and programs. That’s pretty remarkable.

Greenhalgh says the research is important because it provides detail about how such schemes work to foster “industry-friendly science,” which threatens the development of health policy that benefits people over profits while undercutting the credibility of science. She says it is important that watchdogs understand how “sophisticated, secretive quasi-corporate organizations like ILSI work.”

These case studies should be must-reads for students of nonprofit ethics and regulation, and the issue resonates acutely today as we look at the ways nonprofits allow themselves to be used as bought lobbyists by drug companies.—Ruth McCambridge