Government sugar tsar works for Coca-Cola and Mars

pharmafile | January 20, 2014 | News story | Sales and Marketing UK government, action on sugar, macdonald 

It has been revealed that the man tasked by the UK government to help implement tougher regulation on sugar levels actually works for US firms Coca-Cola and Mars.

The connection, revealed by The Times newspaper and broadcaster Channel 4 this week, found that Professor Ian Macdonald is working as a paid adviser for the two firms which produce sugary snacks.

Prof Macdonald currently chairs a government panel examining the health impact of sugar consumption, amid growing concern that excessive amounts in food are fuelling the obesity epidemic.

The panel is set to recommend later this year what level of sugar in the British diet should be considered healthy.

The revelation comes several weeks after the World Health Organization suggested that the levels should be halved globally, with some experts claiming that sugar should be considered as dangerous as tobacco.

The Professor has since confirmed that he provided monthly advice to Mars ‘at board level’ and also advised Coca-Cola on diet, obesity and exercise. He said the annual payment of £6,100 from Coca-Cola went into his personal income ‘goes into [my] tax return’,  while the larger payment from Mars helped to fund his university research.

This disclosure has prompted demands that Macdonald should resign from the chairmanship of the panel because of the ‘unacceptable’ conflict of interests.

Simon Capewell, a Liverpool University professor and founding member of the Action on Sugar campaign, said Macdonald’s role was now untenable. ‘I am shocked,’ he told The Times. “This is a scandal for public health. It’s like putting Dracula in charge of a blood bank. It’s clearly an outrageous conflict of interest.

“If Ian Macdonald doesn’t step down [from the panel], there will be real concerns that their recommendations will be prejudiced by commercial factors rather than scientific public health priorities.”

Prof Macdonald said: “I do understand people saying, ‘You are so close to those companies you should not have anything to do with gathering the evidence for UK policy to be decided’. I just disagree.”

MacDonald, who sits on the Coca-Cola European Scientific Advisory Council and the Mars Scientific Advisory Council, also said he believed it was important to have a dialogue with industry. He added that he never discussed any aspect of his government work on sugar with Coca-Cola and Mars.

The former health secretary Andrew Lansley has also come out in recent weeks warning against any major cuts to the levels of sugar in the public’s food. He argues it should be introduced gradually to allow companies and the public to get use to the idea, and rubbished the idea that sugar was as dangerous as tobacco.

Before losing his role to Jeremy Hunt in 2012, Lansley also came under fire after he used firms such as the US fast food restaurant McDonald’s to help shape the government’s public health plans on obesity.

Many campaigners such as Action on Sugar believe that there is a clear link between an increase of sugar in people’s diet over the last 50 years and the rise of diabetes, which is becoming a global epidemic.

It is estimated that around 347 million people worldwide have diabetes, and in 2004 an estimated 3.4 million people died from consequences of high fasting blood sugar. WHO projects that diabetes will be the seventh leading cause of death in 2030.

Ben Adams

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