The Walt Disney Company urged an academic journal to withdraw a nutritional study of children’s meals at Disney World last fall — a study it had funded — amid a public backlash over corporate involvement in scientific research, according to newly obtained emails.
Disney wasn’t concerned about the study’s findings, but feared being publicly associated with one of its main authors, James Hill of the University of Colorado School of Medicine. Hill’s work last summer drew an outcry among scientists who felt his project, funded by Coca-Cola, played down the impact of sugary drinks in obesity.
Emails obtained by STAT show that Disney asked Hill and a coauthor to withdraw the meal study — a step that many researchers would consider a breach of ethics.
In one email, Hill told Disney an editor at the journal had advised him that “we risk some real negative PR if anyone found out that Disney was even trying to influence publication.” The company relented, but was later offered an opportunity by the authors to tailor the press release about the study’s findings. That, too, was unusual.
The emails do not indicate that Disney influenced the findings, but they open a rare window on the back-and-forth between researchers and a corporate sponsor. They also mark what experts described as an unusual degree of corporate involvement in an academic study.
“The authors should follow the science, and Disney should not be influencing either how they do the study, how they report the study, or whether they report the study,” said George Annas, a Boston University professor of law and medicine who also directs the Center for Health Law, Ethics & Human Rights. “There can’t be any strings attached.”
The study, published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, was a retrospective analysis of kids’ meals sold at Disney World.
The authors looked at data from all 145 Disney World restaurants since it revamped its children’s menus to offer healthier default choices. In the new model, parents who want to order soda or fries for their kids — instead of choices like low-fat milk, fruit, or carrots — have to ask for them.
The study found that nearly half the meals ordered for the children included the healthy default side dishes and two-thirds included the healthier drinks.
The authors wrote that these choices resulted in significant reductions in calories, fat, and sodium in the kids’ meals, but not sugar.
After the study was accepted by the journal, Disney asked the authors not to publish it. The editor, Brian Wansink, a Cornell University professor who edited the issue, told the authors it was too late to pull it.
Wansink “advised me confidentially that it is considered unethical for sponsors of research to have input into publication issues,” Hill wrote to Disney in an email.
A Disney spokesman acknowledged the effort.
“Given the recent issues regarding Dr. Hill and the university, we questioned the wisdom of publishing the study,” said David Jefferson, a Disney spokesman.
“The authors should follow the science, and Disney should not be influencing either how they do the study, how they report the study, or whether they report the study.”
George Annas, Boston University
One of the lead authors of the study, John Peters, also a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, said in an interview that the study was a legitimate subject of research, adding that no one had yet examined whether Disney’s approach was effective in providing families with healthier meals. Asked about Disney’s attempt to withdraw the study, he said the company had “never sponsored any research before and they were not really familiar with the rules of doing so.”
Peters said he was worried about negative publicity surrounding industry-sponsored studies, which he believes can be unbiased if ethics guidelines are followed.
“It’s kind of a shame this sort of scrutiny on industry-sponsored research can have unintended consequences — maybe scaring people off to say, ‘I don’t ever want to fund research as an industry because it’s not worth it,’” he said.
Gary Ruskin, codirector of US Right to Know, a California-based consumer group that obtained the emails under the Colorado Open Records Act and provided them to STAT, said he was troubled by the authors’ disclosure on the paper.
That disclosure said, “The Walt Disney Company and the National Institutes of Health,” which also contributed funding, “had no role in the design, analysis or writing of this article.”
It suggests Disney shouldn’t have had the opportunity to edit the press release, Ruskin said. But the emails show Disney insisting on more information about the publication before they could give approval to a press release; the authors then provided Disney with the draft release.
“I drafted a simple release … but we can edit to our hearts content,” Peters wrote.
“It’s dishonest to disclose in their paper that Disney has no impact when Disney gets to approve the news release and when they do Disney’s bidding to try to take the paper back,” Ruskin said.
In an email, Hill defended the work by Peters and his other coauthors, saying he was “happy the scientific community was able to learn about the good work with food that Disney is doing in their parks.”
“I am sorry that companies like Disney have to worry about negative PR from funding research,” he added. “We need more, not less, research.”