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Obesity group with ties to Coke shuts down

Chris Isidore | 12/2/2015, 11:03 a.m.
An anti-obesity group backed by Coca-Cola has closed after criticism of ties to the soft drink maker.
Coca Cola fountain drinks, 16oz. and larger cups being filled with soda. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposes to ban all sugary soda drinks sold in large cups. Credit: Ferre' Dollar/CNN

— An anti-obesity group backed by Coca-Cola has closed after criticism of ties to the soft drink maker.

The Global Energy Balance Network had argued that exercise the key to combating obesity, downplaying the need to cut back on consumption of sugary soft drinks.

But it has shut down its Web site. A message on it says the group was "discontinuing operations due to resource limitations."

The University of Colorado's medical school had received a $1 million grant from Coke to support scientists in the group, and the University of South Carolina had received $500,000.

But the University of Colorado returned the money. "While the network continues to advocate for good health through a balance of healthy eating habits and exercise, the funding source has distracted attention from its worthwhile goal," the school said in a statement last month announcing the return of the funds. The University of South Carolina kept its grant money from Coke.

The anti-obesity group had denied it was letting Coke affect its findings.

But at one point its Website included a video from South Carolina professor Steve Blair, the vice president of the group, in which he said: "Most of the focus in the popular media and the scientific press is, 'Oh they're eating too much, eating too much, eating too much' blaming fast food, blaming sugary drinks and so on, and there's really virtually no compelling evidence that that, in fact is the cause."

Other public health experts criticized the Global Energy Balance Network and its funding support from Coke, comparing it to the tobacco industry's funding of scientists who denied a link between cigarettes and cancer.

"Unfortunately, Coca-Cola and its academic helpers won't accept the well-documented evidence that sugary drinks are a major contributor to obesity, heart disease and diabetes," said a letter signed by 36 public health advocates after Coke's support for the group was first disclosed by the New York Times.

For a time, the group pushed back against the criticism.

"GEBN is not about minimizing diet or even the role of sugar-sweetened beverages in development of obesity," it said in response to the attacks. Its mission was to find an "evidence-based approach to ending obesity."

Neither Blair nor University of Colorado professor James Hill, the founder and president of the group, responded to a request for comment on its closing.

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