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New CDC Head Used Coca-Cola Funding for Anti-Obesity Programs

And she’d consider accepting Coke money for federal programs.

Jesse Hicks

Brenda Fitzgerald, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Robin Marchant / Getty Images

It wasn't that long ago that we learned about Brenda Fitzgerald's history of supporting "anti-aging" pseudoscience. That didn't speak well of the ob-gyn's qualifications as the incoming director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a position that requires sound judgment and a commitment to scientific rigor.

It turns out that wasn't the only questionable medical decision in her past. The New York Times reports that, as the Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health, Fitzgerald tried to tackle the problem of child obesity with funding from Coca-Cola. Georgia had one of the highest rates of child obesity; Fitzgerald addressed the problem with a program called Power Up for 30, which emphasized exercise as the key to weight loss and urged schools to give students 30 more minutes of exercise per day. The program was almost entirely funded by Coke, with the company contributing $1 million of its $1.2 million budget over the past four years.

The behemoth soda purveyor, headquartered in Atlanta, has a history of funding research that promotes exercise as the solution for obesity, rather than addressing the roles both diet and inactivity play in weight gain, the Times notes. In 2014, Coke funding helped create a nonprofit organization called the Global Energy Balance Network with the aim of reassuring Americans they could worry less about cutting calories—including the ones in, say, sugary drinks—as long as they got plenty of exercise. The GEBN's web site did not disclose Coca-Cola's involvement until an obesity expert inquired about its funding. The group didn't last long, shutting down about a year later amid criticism of Coke's influence .

Fitzgerald's program in Georgia hewed to a similar line, albeit with a bit more disclosure. In May 2013, according to the Times , she appeared on local television to announce that Coke had pledged $3.8 million to underwrite a number of exercise-related programs. "Thirty minutes of exercise will go a long way toward better health," she said, adding that the state's outreach would include encouraging children to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. "We're going to concentrate on what you should eat," she added, which is a way to promote healthier diets without saying what kids shouldn't eat (or drink).

An impartial observer might consider that a fairly significant omission. But Fitzgerald also penned an essay for Coke's website, titled "Solving Childhood Obesity Requires Movement." She points to the problem of diabetes, writing, "By the time we reach age 65, CDC statistics indicate half of us will have diabetes or pre-diabetes."

As the Times notes, the CDC website also points out: "Frequently drinking sugar-sweetened beverages is associated with weight gain/obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, kidney diseases, non-alcoholic liver disease, tooth decay and cavities, and gout, a type of arthritis." Limiting their consumption, the CDC says, can help people maintain a healthy weight and have a healthy diet.

Fitzgerald, though, goes in a different direction. "And yet," she writes, "all too often, we overlook the most important fact: overwhelmingly, the vast majority of [diabetes] cases are entirely preventable if we encourage movement or exercise."

That was in 2013, and it's fair to ask whether Fitzgerald's outlook has changed since then. Responding to the Times, she gave no indication that it had, suggesting she would consider accepting Coke's money for CDC programs and defending her work with the company in Georgia. "We worked hard to ensure our program was robust and included all evidence-based strategies for reducing obesity," she said in a written statement. "I think everyone can agree government can't and should not do everything alone."

Which isn't really the point—though it does underscore how government budget cuts and so-called "public-private partnerships" can lead to public health programs that just happen to dovetail with the goals of large corporations. Fitzgerald appears to see nothing wrong with such arrangements, and as head of the CDC, she'll be in a position to make more of them happen.

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