In addition to pulling the strings at now-defunct puppet anti-obesity group Global Energy Balance Network, it seems sugary drink maker Coca-Cola also bankrolled travel expenses for the organization's president and University of Colorado professor James Hill. The Denver Post reports that Hill, a "nutrition expert" received kickbacks from the soda company to travel the world preaching his pro-soda cause and also called in a favor to get his son a job.
According to the Post, Coke spokesman Ben Sheidler confirms that beginning in 2010 it paid Hill $550,000 for "honoraria, travel, education activities and research on weight management." Emails shed further light on Hill's activities. The GEBN president traveled to Mexico, Grenada, England, Australia, and New Zealand on Coke's dime. He also paid for his wife's trip to Australia and New Zealand using the company's gift.
Later, Hill contacted Coca-Cola vice president Rhona Applebaum for help in finding his son a job. "I am totally biased but this kid is something special. He is very interested in spending a couple of years in D.C. doing something related to international affairs/politics," he wrote. "I know you spend a fair amount of time in DC and work with your staff there. Does Coca Cola ever have any positions (interns maybe) for something like this." She later replied, "I will make this happen!"
Applebaum has since retired. Hill has responded that the money was provided by Coca-Cola "to present research to other scientists and to encourage physical activity and responsible eating habits." He adds that he no longer accepts money from Coca-Cola and that his son never took a job with Coke.
It was recently revealed through an email leak that Coca-Cola paid GEBN "unrestricted grants" in excess of $1.5 million and was allowed to edit the group's mission statement and logo. According to Consumerist, the University of Colorado returned $1 million in donations to the soda company that had been earmarked for GEBN. Lead by Hill, Global Energy Balance Network focused on healthy diets and exercise while downplaying connections between soft drinks and obesity. Despite maintaining that its motives were based on good science, the group disbanded on December 1, citing "resource limitations."
As sugary drinks have fallen out of favor among health experts, Coca-Cola has spent millions fighting to maintain soda's pristine image. Earlier this year, the company was found to be partnering with "fitness and nutrition experts" to suggest that mini-cans of Coke could function as a "healthy treat." Still, many fast food chains including Wendy's have begun eliminating sodas from kids' menus and soda companies themselves have aimed to cut calories in their drinks.