The Obesity Society: Getting Fat on Big Soda’s Money?

Editor’s Note: We are pleased to present this guest post by our colleague Derek Fields.

In not-so-unexpected news, partners of Coke, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper/Snapple and other food industry giants are still taking industry money while assuring us that it does not affect them. We’ve covered Coca-Cola’s corruption, “transparency” efforts, and unexplained changes to their database of health grants extensively. In this post we’re going to focus on The Obesity Society and their fellow Martin Binks. Both tell us to “Judge the Science, not the Funding Source”.

First, some background. The Obesity Society is, in its own words, “a nonprofit 501(c)(3) scientific and educational organization dedicated to expanding research, prevention, and treatment of obesity and reduction in stigma and discrimination affecting persons with obesity.”

Martin Binks wrote a paper titled “Judge the Science, not the Funding Source” that was published in the International Journal of Obesity. Binks has his PhD in Clinical Psychology & Behavioral Medicine and serves as an associate professor of nutritional sciences at Texas Tech University. He is also listed as a treasurer, secretary, and fellow of The Obesity Society (though we’ve heard his roles may have changed recently).

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Martin Binks. Source.

Unfortunately, The Obesity Society and Binks aren’t as dedicated to improving research, prevention, and treatment of obesity as one might hope. In 2013 The Obesity Society published its “Guidelines for Accepting Funds from an External Source”. There are quite a few gems in the guidelines, but we’ll just quote a couple to give you the right idea.

“The current TOS policy expressly eliminates all forms of evaluation or judgment of the funding source.”

(Though, to their credit, they follow up by saying they shouldn’t take funds derived from illegal activities.)

“TOS should seek funding from as wide a variety of donors as possible.”

What’s TOS’ grand plan to avoid conflicts of interest when they’re taking money from anyone and everyone you ask?

“TOS will disclose all sources of past funding (minimum last 5 years) and current funding in a clearly identified ‘disclosures’ section of the TOS public website.”

Sadly, the disclosures I found on their site at first did not work. Here is their page on “disclosures” that their funding guidelines mentioned. When you click on a year to see that year’s specific funding sources and financial info however (they currently have 2010-2014 listed) you get a 404 page like this.

One can find still find the financial disclosures by going through a transparency section of the website. The 2014 disclosures show travel grants from the Coca-Cola company in an undisclosed amount over $5,000 as well as other food industry giants like Nestle. The grand total for that section of grants over $5,000 equals $380,000. Overall, The Obesity Society pulled in over $1.1 million in financial support in 2014.

Coca Cola’s own records show $59,750 given to the Obesity Society between 2013 and 2015.
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So, The Obesity Society is saying that they’ve eliminated all forms of evaluation or judgement of a funding source. This means they accept money from a host of food industry giants with obvious vested interests in nutritional science, such as Coke and Nestle. TOS also has a “Food Industry Engagement Council”. Here are the most recent minutes available from an FIEC meeting from November of 2015. If it weren’t so sad it would almost be humorous that the chair of the FIEC is from PepsiCo. Three individuals from PepsiCo sit on the FIEC, as do one from Dr. Pepper Snapple, and one from Nestle. There are nearly as many representatives of Big Soda and the food industry on the council as there are actual members of TOS on the council.

Dr. Yoni Freedhoff of Weighty Matters, a blog that describes itself as “musings of an obesity medicine doc and certifiably cynical realist,” points out that The Obesity Society was conspicuously silent throughout the entire exposure and collapse of the Global Energy Balance Network. This story rocked the nutritional science and obesity world and showed just how badly food industry money could corrupt nutritional science. One would think that a group dedicated to obesity research, prevention, and treatment would comment on the biggest story to come out of the nutritional science world in years in terms of media attention. That is, unless of course they had something to hide or were embarrassed by their own shameful partnerships like the FIEC.

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The Obesity Society thanks Coca-Cola. Source.

A year after TOS published its external funding source guidelines Martin Binks published his “Judge the Science, not the Funding Source” paper in the International Journal of Obesity in 2014. He also serves as Devil’s Advocate for the food industry in media that criticizes industry funding for nutritional research, as in this 2015 Washington Post article. The Washington Post says,

“Binks advocated more transparency in studies, including full disclosure about all potential conflicts of interest, so that the science can be judged rather than where the money is coming from.” 

The sad irony though is that Binks and the Post failed to disclose Binks’ own conflicts of interest in that very article. It mentions that Binks is the editor of the International Journal of Obesity, but mentions nothing at all about Bink’s connections to corporate funding.

Binks doesn’t even follow his own advice in published research – he fails to be transparent and disclose his conflicts of interests in studies that his Big Soda funders obviously have a vested interest in, such as his 2016 study “Physical activity and obesity: what we know and what we need to know”.

Back in 2015, the same year as the Washington Post article and before the 2016 study mentioned above where Binks didn’t disclose any conflicts of interest, he received a $5,000 unrestricted grant from Coca-Cola. It’s quite common for companies to give unrestricted grants to institutions like universities, but it’s far rarer for an individual, like Binks, to be the actual recipient of an unrestricted grant. Coca Cola’s own “transparency” database showed 0 results for “Binks” at the time this post was written.

Does Binks’ personal involvement with Big Soda and the food industry, as well as his connections through The Obesity Society, influence his published papers and advocacy in the media? And why are Coca-Cola and Binks violating their professed commitments to transparency by failing to disclose their relationship?

Is The Obesity Society genuinely trying to prevent conflicts of interest? Is it taking its mission to research, prevent, and treat obesity seriously while accepting so much money from and not only meeting with, but formally cooperating with, Big Soda and the food industry? Organizations such as the Global Energy Balance Network and our past research and experience with Big Soda suggest the answer to that question.

(Since this article was published, we have learned Binks has accepted funding from Nestle Health Science and the International Food Information Council, a food industry proxy group).

One comment

  1. Pingback: The Obesity Society: Getting Fat on Big Soda’s Money? – DietBaloney

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