CrossFit sues NIH and CDC Foundations over donor list

By Kimberly Leonard

From: Washington Examiner

CrossFit has sued two foundations with government ties to have them release information about their donors that may expose potential conflicts-of-interest, including improper relationships with soda companies who give money to fitness groups that are at war with CrossFit.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday under the Freedom of Information Act, accuses the CDC Foundation and the NIH Foundation of being involved in “ethical scandals” by accepting donations from companies that they say have contributed to Type 2 diabetes, liver disease, opioid addiction, and other illnesses. The foundations in question fall outside the government but help to raise money for research at the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Though CrossFit said it is looking for a wide range of ties that may pose ethical questions, its original impetus for looking into the research was to analyze the extent of donations by soda companies. Greg Glassman, CrossFit’s libertarian founder and chairman, has for several years pushed back against the soda industry’s involvement in medical research because fitness competitors funded by the industry have challenged his methods or sought to regulate CrossFit out of business.

Glassman has argued that competitors are working to discredit the CrossFit methods, which involve high-intensity movements, because the workouts bring competition to the market. One of the ways he has sought to fight back is by knocking out soda companies from providing one of their funding streams.

Brett Ewer, CrossFit’s spokesman, said that going after soda exclusively was not the intent of the lawsuit. He said the foundations were breaking the law by not listing specific amounts of donations they received, and that certain donations were listed as being anonymous.

“As we looked further and further we found that the [foundations] weren’t complying with their reporting requirements regardless of industry or donor,” Ewer said. “We are pushing on instituting a culture of transparency when it comes to industry-funded studies.”

“We’re left with no choice but to file suit,” Russ Greene, spokesman for CrossFit, said in a statement. He accused the organizations of enabling “opaque conflicts of interest at agencies that Americans rely on for information critical to their health.”

The complaint states that the CDC Foundation and NIH Foundation “have failed to comply with their legal transparency requirements, engaging in opaque partnerships with opioid manufacturers, soda companies, the NFL, and other corporations that represent major and direct conflicts of interest for any institution purported to care for the public’s health.”

Pierce Nelson, spokesman for the CDC Foundation, said he hadn’t seen the suit. He said the Coca-Cola had contributed $1.46 million spread out over 23 years, and that the funds went toward emergency response efforts, training, a museum, a foundation event, and general operations. Since 2014 the donations have gone toward general operations, totaling $20,500.

The Foundation for the NIH said it doesn’t receive soda company funds at this time. Abbey Meltzer, spokeswoman for the foundation, said that it provided reports about donors to CrossFit earlier this year.

The lawsuit comes after the NIH in June canceled a massive study on the health effects of moderate drinking that received $60 million in funding from the alcohol industry. An investigation by the New York Times suggested researchers had hinted to the industry that there would be a possible favorable outcome. The scientists deny that any improper back and forth took place and the communications happened before the foundation raised private funding for the trial.

The NIH since then is conducting a wider examination of the possible influence of industry-funded research on the agency.

Glassman’s war against the soda industry started in 2014, when CrossFit sued the National Strength and Conditioning Association over a study it published in its journal claiming that participants in CrossFit quit after being injured.

The association, which certifies trainers and receives money from PepsiCo-owned Gatorade, issued a correction, and the lead researcher resigned. Still, the suit is ongoing, with CrossFit claiming the organization published false information intentionally.

In another instance, the American College of Sports Medicine, which has gotten sponsorship from the Gatorade Sports Science Institute and Coca-Cola, was pushing for legislation that would require certain fitness trainers receive a license only from their program.

In the past, Glassman has supported a bill in California that would have required soda bottles and cans to carry labels warning of their dangers, and he has also sent letters to research groups asking them to stop accepting money from sugary beverage companies.

Glassman has said that after looking into the issue more that he believes the risk is high that the industry might taint research on health, given that drinking sugary beverages is tied to rising rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetes. He also increasingly has been pitching the CrossFit workout as a panacea for those conditions.

Information about the NIH’s canceled study on alcohol has been corrected.

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