Food and beverage industry resists measures to tackle NCDs
Research has highlighted reticence from the global food and beverage industry to fully get behind public health guidance aimed at tackling NCDs.
In the wake of a concerted global effort to tackle the endemic problem of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) – such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer – the University of Bath reports on research that highlights sustained resistance on behalf of the food and beverage (F&B) industry against public health measures for addressing unhealthy diets – a major cause of NCDs.
The research, carried out by analysts at Bath in collaboration with universities of Edinburgh and São Paulo, studied industry responses from consultations with the World Health Organization (WHO) between 2015 and 2018. It found that the rhetoric was supportive of policies, yet the action fell far short of implementing effective regulations such as taxes and marketing restrictions.
The report explains that F&B lobby groups have, in fact, challenged established public health evidence for tackling NCDs. The International Council of Beverages Associations, which represents the soft drinks industry, questioned the well-established link between sugar-sweetened beverages and obesity suggesting:
‘The overall weight of the scientific evidence on sugar and/or sugar-sweetened beverages show that they do not have a unique effect on body weight beyond their contribution to total calorie intake.’
In addition, the report claims that the lobby group undermined the WHO by inaccurately arguing that the world’s leading public health agency was not in a position to advise on health taxes:
‘Offering such policy advice in a field – economics and fiscal policy – far from WHO’s expertise is not in our opinion a prudent course of action.’
The researchers suggest that the arguments used are similar to those deployed by the tobacco industry when the WHO started to take stronger action to regulate cigarettes in the early 2000s.
Recognising that good health is essential to development, the UN’s landmark Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include a target to promote health and reduce premature mortality from NCDs by one third by 2030 (SDG #3). The COVID-19 pandemic, which affects people living with NCDs more severely, has shown how important this is.
Yet, the researchers highlight a possible tension between this goal, to improve health, and another, SDG #17, which promotes public-private partnerships. They document how food industry groups use SDG #17 to promote industry involvement in policy making, which for many is seen to be undermining attempts to improve health.
Lead author, Kathrin Lauber from the Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of Bath explains: “What happens at the WHO, and what doesn’t happen, is important to all of us. The agency’s guidelines can provide countries with a mandate to introduce crucial public health protections, which is why we see food and drink lobby groups pushing to keep the policy recommendations weak. Moreover, positioning collaboration with the commercial sector as a default risks impeding not only the work of the WHO as the UN’s key health agency, but also that of countries across the world working to reduce the burden of NCDs.”
Lucy Westerman, Policy and Campaigns Manager, NCD Alliance, said: “As one of the many civil society advocates who engaged tirelessly in these same nutrition and noncommunicable disease (NCD) related WHO consultations and processes between 2015-2018, and who witnessed engagement of industry in some of these processes and related negotiations and outcomes, this analysis is extremely welcome and enlightening. The researchers’ analysis illuminates but one of many ways in which such unhealthy commodity industries seek to dilute global health policy undermining efforts to ensure all people have access to healthy, nutritious diets. If we are to realise nutrition, NCD and Sustainable Development Goal targets and health for all, these industries cannot be allowed to dilute public health policy.”
This study was funded by the Roger and Sue Whorrod PhD Studentship. Professor Anna Gilmore and Kathrin Lauber are members of SPECTRUM, a UK Prevention Research Partnership (UKPRP) Consortium.
‘Non-communicable disease governance in the era of the sustainable development goals: a qualitative analysis of food industry framing in WHO consultations’ is published in the journal Globalization and Health.