Abstract

Context: Industry influence on health science and policy is a critical issue of our day. In 2015, the New York Times revealed that Coca-Cola paid scientists to form a Global Energy Balance Network promoting the notion that exercise, not dietary restraint, is the solution to the obesity epidemic—a claim few accept. This article examines the organizational dynamics and policy process behind Coke’s efforts to sway obesity policy, globally and in China, a critical market, during 1995–2015.

Methods: In-depth, qualitative research during 2013–18 involved: 10 weeks of fieldwork in Beijing; interviews with 25 leading experts; analysis of newsletters documenting all major obesity-related activities in China; interviews with 12 Euro-American experts; extensive internet research on all major actors.

Findings: This article tells two intertwined stories (institutional dynamics; science- and policymaking) at global and local-Chinese levels. Coke succeeded in redirecting China’s obesity science and policy to emphasize physical activity. Key to its success was the industry-funded, global nonprofit, the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI). Beneath ILSI’s public narrative of unbiased science and no policy advocacy lay a maze of hidden channels companies used to advance their interests. Working through those channels, Coca-Cola influenced China’s science- and policymaking during every phase in the policy process, from framing the issues to drafting official policy.

Conclusions: Though China is exceptional, ILSI promoted exercise globally, suggesting potentially significant impacts in other ILSI-branch countries.

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