health concerns

America’s Top Public-Health Official Has Shady Ties to Coca-Cola

She’s said Coke’s money has “a significant impact on the lives of our children today.” Photo: Branden Camp/AP

The nation’s primary authority on public health — the CDC — has a new Trump-appointed boss, and lo and behold, she’s a big fan of letting Big Soda pay for anti-obesity initiatives. Prior to landing this new gig, Brenda Fitzgerald worked as an OB/GYN, as Newt Gingrich’s health adviser, then as Georgia’s public-health commissioner. It was in this most recent role, in a state with what was then the second-worst childhood-obesity rate, that Fitzgerald launched a statewide program called SHAPE. This initiative encouraged schools to give kids an extra 30 minutes of exercise every day, which of course is great — assuming it’s combined with solid dietary advice.

Fitzgerald’s initiative wasn’t. Feel free to hypothesize about why, but it’s worth noting that Coke wrote a $1 million check to fund the program. Ultimately, SHAPE suggested kids eat more fruits and vegetables, but forgot to tell them to also curb sugary-drink consumption. CEO Muhtar Kent later personally helped promote the program, and Coke’s then–senior exec in charge of lobbying efforts, Clyde Tuggle, ended up serving on the board that oversaw it. In fact, Coke went next-level with the partnership; it posted a 2013 column Fitzgerald wrote called “Solving Childhood Obesity Requires Movement” to its corporate website, where it still appears today, four years later. In the piece, Fitzgerald tells kids the way to stay healthy isn’t by “trying out for the football team or preparing for the Olympic Games,” but rather just “walking a mile and touching your toes.”

Watchdog groups are already nervous Fitzgerald might try implementing this strategy at the federal level. Studies routinely link drinking soda to a litany of ailments — not just obesity, but diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and even cancer — and Coke has a checkered past, to put it mildly, with sponsoring health research. A spokesperson for the CDC told the Washington Post that the agency’s new chief “recognizes that public-private partnerships can be powerful tools that help … save lives, solve problems, and speed innovation,” then completely dodged the actual question about whether Fitzgerald would allow Coke to fund CDC work. (The response was that the CDC values “scientific integrity and a deep commitment to ethical, innovative partnerships that advance the agency’s lifesaving mission.”)

Funnily enough, Coke got a chance to respond, too, and it tells the Post it’s actually changed course in recent years — it now also feels kids should reduce their sugar intake! Its new mini-cans and push to promote “healthier” drinks like “fiber” Coke are both evidence of that shift, it says. That’s a fair point, but the real danger might be above Fitzgerald’s pay grade anyway: President Trump’s budget cuts would slash CDC funding by more than $1 billion. This would reportedly eliminate the agency’s Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity — the arm tasked with “protect[ing] the health of Americans at every stage of life by encouraging regular physical activity, good nutrition, and preventing adult and childhood obesity.”

Nation’s Top Public-Health Official Has Shady Coca-Cola Ties