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Have a Coke and an uncomfortable smile about your obesity problem!

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Andrew Jacobs of the New York Times reports (porous paywall):

Happy 10 Minutes, a Chinese government campaign that encouraged schoolchildren to exercise for 10 minutes a day, would seem a laudable step toward improving public health in a nation struggling with alarming rates of childhood obesity.

But the initiative and other official Chinese efforts that emphasized exercise as the best way to lose weight were notable for what they didn’t mention: the importance of cutting back on the calorie-laden junk foods and sugary beverages that have become ubiquitous in the world’s second largest economy.

China’s fitness-is-best message, as it happens, has largely been the handiwork of Coca-Cola and other Western food and beverage giants, according to a pair of new studies that document how those companies have helped shape decades of Chinese science and public policy on obesity and diet-related illnesses like Type 2 diabetes and hypertension.

The findings, published Wednesday in The BMJ and The Journal of Public Health Policy, show how Coca-Cola and other multinational food companies, operating through a group called the International Life Sciences Institute, cultivated key Chinese officials in an effort to stave off the growing movement for food regulation and soda taxes that has been sweeping the West.

If you’re interested in this topic — to me, a fascinating one — listen to the BMJ podcast linked above (and here) and read the whole paper by Harvard anthropologist Susan Greenhalgh, who has uncovered a very seamy history of Coca-Cola influence operations in China aimed at hooking the nation on carbonated sugar water.

More on obesity in China: You can watch Fat China! Paul French talks about obesity in China, a (low-production value!) YouTube video interview I did with author Paul French on the roof of the Beijing Bookworm eight years ago. Paul focuses less on the evil acts of Western fast-food corporations, and puts more blame on the changing lifestyles of a growing urban middle class for the obesity epidemic.

There are some interesting details in the interview, such as a journalist getting in trouble for revealing that then Party secretary and president Hú Jǐntāo 胡锦涛 is a diabetic, and the possible business opportunities and political risks to the Party of lifestyle diseases.

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Jeremy Goldkorn

Jeremy Goldkorn worked in China for 20 years as an editor and entrepreneur. He is editor-in-chief of SupChina, and co-founder of the Sinica Podcast.

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