Studies Linked to Soda Industry Mask Health Risks

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Do studies show that soft drinks promote obesity and Type 2 diabetes? It depends on who paid for the study.

Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, looked at studies of soft drink consumption and its relationship to obesity and diabetes published between 2001 and 2016. They found about 60 studies that were fairly rigorous in their methodology.

When the studies were led by independent researchers, they showed a clear link between soda consumption and obesity or metabolic disease. But notably, 26 of the studies reported no link between sugary soft drinks and poor health.

What was different about the studies that found no connection to health problems? They were all carried out by researchers with financial ties to the beverage industry. The findings were published Monday in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

“If you look at just the independent studies, it becomes exceedingly clear that these drinks are associated with diabetes and obesity,” said Dean Schillinger, the lead author of the report and chief of the University of California, San Francisco, division of general internal medicine at San Francisco General Hospital. “Yet there are pockets of society that believe that they don’t cause these diseases because of the controversy that industry has created.”

The notion that sugary drinks play a major role in the spread of obesity has prompted authorities and health officials to increasingly call for soda taxes and similar measures aimed at curbing their consumption. But the industry has pushed back, calling soda taxes discriminatory and arguing that there is no proof that sugary drinks have played a disproportionate role in the obesity epidemic.

The U.C.S.F. findings are the latest evidence that the beverage industry has supported research to downplay the health hazards of sugary drinks. Nutrition experts say the industy-funded science has been used to influence public policy and nutrition recommendations.

Last year, an article in The New York Times reported that Coca-Cola was providing millions in funding to scientists who sought to downplay the link between sugary drinks and obesity. Other reports revealed that the beverage industry was paying dietitians and health experts to write social media posts opposing soda taxes and encouraging consumers to drink soda as a healthy snack.

As a result of those reports, Coca-Cola, the world’s largest sugary drink producer, announced that it would pull back from its funding of health experts and obesity research as part of an effort to be more transparent.

The new study came about as a result of a legal dispute between the beverage industry and the city of San Francisco. In 2015, city officials issued an ordinance requiring that billboards and other advertisements for sugary drinks carry a warning like that required for tobacco stating that the beverages contribute to obesity, tooth decay and diabetes.

The beverage industry sued, calling the warnings about health hazards “misleading” and a violation of free speech. During the case, the city hired Dr. Schillinger to compile a report assessing the scientific data on sugary drinks and health problems.

While reviewing the literature, Dr. Schillinger said he noticed that industry-supported studies and independent studies tended to draw very different conclusions. He and several colleagues at U.C.S.F. launched an analysis to study the link between funding sources and outcomes in soft drink research. He concluded “they far exceed other industries as far as the degree to which they appear to be influencing the scientific process.”

In a statement, the American Beverage Association, the trade group that represents Coke, PepsiCo and other beverage makers, said that its studies help to inform consumers and regulatory agencies.

“We have a right — and a responsibility — to engage in scientific research,” the association said. “The research we fund adheres to the highest standards of integrity for scientific inquiry based on recognized standards by prominent research institutions.”

The beverage association added that the new report itself was biased because its lead author, Dr. Schillinger, had been a “paid expert” for the City of San Francisco in the lawsuit over its soda warning labels. And it questioned the timing of the new report, saying its release a week before Election Day was an attempt to influence voters in California and Colorado, which have soda tax referendums on the ballot.

“This paper is the latest in a trend of pro-tax forces writing speculative opinion papers to influence voters a week before a vote on several ballot initiatives to tax beverages,” the association said. “Clearly pro-tax forces are worried that the voters are skeptical of their demands for regressive and discriminatory taxes.”