The new chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which monitors significant public health concerns, including the impact of sugary beverages on obesity and heart disease, will be led by Brenda Fitzgerald, a Georgia physician whose signature childhood obesity project was underwritten by Coca-Cola.
The announcement to appoint Fitzgerald as the CDC director was made on Friday by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.
Fitzgerald, a former Republican candidate for Congress and adviser to Newt Gingrich, most recently served as the Georgia Public Health Commissioner. Price and Gingrich both previously represented the 6th Congressional District in Georgia, now held by Republican Karen Handel.
During her tenure as Georgia’s public health watchdog, in a state that has one of the highest obesity rates in the nation, Fitzgerald and Gov. Nathan Deal launched SHAPE, a statewide effort to address childhood obesity through “physical activity before class, physical activity during class, and more structured recess.”
Muhtar Kent, the chief executive and chairman of Coca-Cola Company, appeared with the governor and Fitzgerald to promote the initiative, along with a pledge of $1 million from his company to fund it. Clyde Tuggle, a Coca-Cola executive responsible for the company’s lobbying strategy, was initially appointed to the board overseeing the state anti-obesity strategy, including Fitzgerald’s SHAPE initiative. (Tuggle announced his retirement from Coca-Cola in March of this year.)
“This generous award will have a significant impact on the lives of our children today and well into the future,” Fitzgerald said at the news conference. “Unless we address this obesity epidemic facing our children right now, they will likely suffer life-long consequences of obesity — diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. With this money we can make a real difference.”
Coca-Cola was so fond of Fitzgerald’s approach to obesity issues that an opinion column authored by Fitzgerald is featured prominently on Coca-Cola’s website.
Public health officials around the country have made obesity a top issue of concern. The United States has the distinction of having the highest rate of childhood obesity in the world, according to a recent report from the New England Journal of Medicine. And multiple reports have found that regular consumption of sugary beverages is a leading driver of obesity, which is linked to heart disease, diabetes, kidney diseases, cancers and hypertension.
More exercise, of course, is a good thing, but the Georgia SHAPE program notably eschewed another well-known step toward healthier living: curbing sugary beverage consumption. Touting Coca-Cola’s support of her program on local news station WXIA-TV, Fitzgerald explained her approach. “We’re going to concentrate on what you should eat,” she said, before simply suggesting that children eat more fruits and vegetables. Fitzgerald did not recommend the approach adopted by public officials around the country, namely that children should cut sweetened soda and junk foods from their diet.
The contrast was laid out explicitly in a presentation in 2015. In explaining SHAPE, officials from the Georgia Department of Public Health overtly contrasted the “Georgia vs. California” model on the obesity epidemic. Cities in California, the slide noted, passed the first tax on sugary drinks. Georgia, on the other hand, proposed the largest exemption to new federal rules curbing the sale of junk food in public schools.
Coca-Cola, along with PepsiCo and other sugar industry interests, has worked obsessively to defeat attempts to regulate sugary beverages. Sugar industry interests, including Coca-Cola, have spent at least $67 million on campaign efforts to defeat sugar taxes and related labeling ballot measures. Emails hacked from Democratic officials during the 2016 presidential campaign revealed that executives from Coca-Cola, including Clyde Tuggle, the Coca-Cola vice president overseeing SHAPE, attempted to pressure the Hillary Clinton campaign to back down from voicing support for a soda tax. The company was also caught setting up a front group, called the Global Energy Balance Network, designed to downplay the health risks associated with sugary drinks.
The CDC in particular has also been targeted by Coca-Cola, which has long disclosed attempts to lobby the agency to influence public health policy.
Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know revealed that executives from Coca-Cola and the International Life Sciences Institute — an organization founded with support from Coca-Cola — had pressured the agency to partner with the soda giant and allow it to weigh in on debates over sugary soft drinks. In one particular email chain with a CDC official, a former Coca-Cola executive discussed strategies for influencing the World Health Organization’s call for greater regulation of soft drinks. The former Coca-Cola executive called the WHO’s efforts a “threat to our business,” and invited the CDC official out for dinner to further discuss ways to sway decisions at the international body. Clyde Tuggle, the former Coca-Cola executive, was included in the email chain.
While voters have continued to approve new limits on sugary drinks, Coca-Cola may have a new ally at the nation’s premiere public health agency.
Shortly after news of Fitzgerald’s appointment to lead the CDC, Rhona Applebaum, Coca-Cola’s former chief health and science officer, celebrated the pick on social media, tweeting: “An excellent choice!”