Study Shows How Corporate and Political Interests Threaten Public Health
The implementation of public health policies — especially the ones that seek to reduce consumption of alcohol, tobacco, and junk food — is often jeopardized by capitalist interests, according to a new study published in The Lancet Global Health.
Eating junk food contributes to the risk of developing non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and even cancer. Consuming alcohol, too, can lead to these NCDs — in addition to exposing one to the risk of liver disease and pancreatitis. The same is true of tobacco usage too, which is believed to be behind one in six of all deaths caused by NCDs — killing about 6 million people each year.
Yet, public health policies designed to make people cut down on their consumption are often jeopardized by the vested interests of corporates. How? Well, corporates often use their financial power to influence — and even control, to a certain extent — politicians in charge of governance. And governance, of course, includes the framing and implementation of public health policies.
“Our study found slow overall implementation of WHO’s recommended NCD policies, especially when it comes to measures targeted at risk factors such as smoking, alcohol, and unhealthy foods,” Hampus Holmer from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, who co-authored the study, said in a statement.
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Citing the example of corporate interference in health policies surrounding alcohol, an April 2021 study by scientists from the U.K. stated: “Global alcohol corporations have sought to become trusted sources of advice for policymakers and consumers — while continuing to grow their markets. Evidence-informed public health messaging faces formidable competition from [them] as the worlds of corporate and political communications, social and mainstream media become increasingly linked, presenting new opportunities for corporate actors to shape global health governance.”
In addition, as in the case of Drinkaware in the U.K. — a charity that Public Health England, a government agency, was working with to reduce alcohol consumption — was actually being funded by the alcohol industry. In fact, in 2018, the government’s alcohol advisor even resigned over the agency’s decision to work with Drinkaware.
Yet, corporates continue to exert varying degrees of influence on public health policies.
In 2010, Indian public health experts filed a petition in the Karnataka High Court to prevent collaborations between the union government’s tobacco board, a statutory body, and tobacco companies. “At the time… I really believed that the court order would quickly trigger the government to come up with a policy on the issue. After a few years, I realized this was not going to happen so easily… especially given the divergence between the health ministry and commerce ministry’s interests on tobacco,” Upendra Bhojani, a director at the Institute of Public Health in Bengaluru, who was behind the petition, told Scroll last year.
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The Lancet-researchers measured the degree of corporate influence on public health policies in 194 different countries based on 25 metrics. These included bribery, corporate contributions to political campaigns, and favoritism by government officials.
“Our analysis shows that corporate political influence is associated with the degree of implementation — the more influence corporations had, the lower the degree of implementation of preventive public health measures,” said Luke Allen from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who was the lead author of the study.
Unfortunately, in countries with poorer incomes and a lesser degree of democracy, the corporate-political hindrance to pubic health policies was greater.
What makes the advancement of corporate interests at the cost of public health even more outrageous is that NCDs are “already the most common cause of death, including premature death, in the world today… [and] are also linked to an increased risk of dying of infectious diseases such as Covid19, or tuberculosis,” as Holmer states.
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