Editorial: Dental experts should avoid taking money from Coca Cola
Editorial: The dental academics who took money from Coca-Cola raise a thorny question. Nobody is seriously suggesting that the corporation's money has influenced their work. But it would be better to refuse the money anyway.
Professor Bernadette Drummond of Otago says she received a "minuscule" payment as a consultant to Coke on oral health. She says she reviewed the effects of various ingredients on oral health, including products with food acids and sweeteners in them.
She says this was a normal consultancy and she had consulted for a range of food companies and others. She has academic freedom to do so, she argues. Importantly, she notes that she has never taken money for research from Coca-Cola.
Drummond is right, of course, that she is free to do the consultancy work. We can certainly accept her point that the payment from the corporation made no difference to her advice.
Her colleague, Rob Beaglehole of the New Zealand Dental Association, says she has worked for many years to improve the oral health of young Kiwis. Nobody, then, is questioning her loyalties.
Yet her decision to take the money from Coca-Cola was an error. As Beaglehole says, he felt personally that working with Coca-Cola would be a conflict of interest for him.
The corporation, after all, has one reason for existing: to make money out of beverages whose health effects have become more and more controversial. Public health experts are increasingly drawn to the notion of taxes on sugary drinks as a necessary step to help protect people from dental decay and obesity.
This is the sense in which academics who take money from sugary drink manufacturers can't avoid trouble. Just by accepting Coke's money, a dental academic must know that her decision will prompt criticism.
It would be unthinkable, for instance, for any respectable scientist to accept money from Coca-Cola for research.
The money would not make a self-respecting scientist alter any of their findings to suit the commercial interests of the funder.
But the scientists would or should know that the source of funding inevitably makes the world wonder. The suspicion can never be erased that somehow the funding raises doubts about the quality of the research.
The world has plenty of reason, after all, for that suspicion. "He who pays the piper calls the tune," is the catch-phrase and no doubt a scientist will be irritated to hear cliches of this sort. But nobody would trust the result of smoking-related health research funded by cigarette companies.
Drummond's consultancy is not Coca-Cola-funded research, and she says she has consulted for other food companies as well. But, once again, it would have been wiser not to have worked for Coke at all.
She is, after all, free to refuse to do the work on the grounds that the appearance of independence is just as important as the fact of it. It's easy to avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest. Just say No to the Coca-Cola corporation.