Food and drink industries 'taking governments for a ride'
Alcohol, drink and processed food industries sponsoring scientists to publish biased and incomplete reports, experts say
Soft drink, alcohol and processed food multinationals are the major drivers of the global epidemic in non-communicable diseases, say international health experts.
Writing in today's Lancet,the group of public health researchers, led by Professor Rob Moodie at the University of Melbourne, say these industries are now targeting developing nations and must be regulated in the interests of global public health.
However they warn these companies are adopting tactics successfully used by the tobacco industry to avoid government regulation and undermine public health programs.
"These industries are taking governments for a ride by saying: 'We are part of the solution' and installing codes they know will have no effect," Moodie tells the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
The landmark paper draws upon public health research as well as market data.
It shows diseases such as heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes, which have long been major causes of death in developed countries, are now also reaching epidemic levels in the developing world.
According to recent estimates, 34.5 million people died from non-communicable diseases in 2010, 65 per cent of the 52.8 million deaths worldwide that year. By 2030, non-communicable diseases are expected to claim more than 50 million lives every year.
Developing world targeted
Moodie says market saturation in the developed world has led the alcohol, drinks and processed food industries — what they term "unhealthy commodity industries" — to target developing nations.
With the exception of China, the researchers say, there is a high degree of penetration into the food systems of low-income and middle-income countries already similar to that in the US.
"For example, Kraft Foods, the main seller of packaged food in the US, is responsible for about 6.8 per cent of all sales in the USA, and Nestlé already has 8.4 per cent of all packaged food sales in Brazil," they write.
Moodie says like the tobacco industry, the expand creating quasi-independent organizations to publish biased and incomplete reports that support their industries.
"Studies funded by food and drinks companies are four to eight times more likely to make conclusions favourable to the companies than those that were not sponsored by food or drinks companies," says Moodie.
Attracting the young
Like the tobacco industry, these conglomerates also attempt to develop customers as young as possible using social media and early-childhood health promotion schemes, and lobby politicians to oppose health care reform and regulation.
Importantly, Moodie says many of the key players at board and executive level in the tobacco industry have moved across to the alcohol, food and processed food companies. The industries also use the same public relations firms to lobby worldwide and design marketing campaigns.
Moodie says governments have long accepted these industries have a role in developing health promotion campaigns and informing health policies.
Yet, he says, their study shows no health benefit from industry involvement in voluntary regulation or public-private partnerships.
"These companies shouldn't be around the table when formulating national and international policy," says Moodie. "There is a fundamental conflict — their legitimate role is to make profit, our role is to protect health."
Moodie says the multinationals, like the tobacco companies, encourage public opposition to government regulation by emphasising individual choice and the intrusion of the "nanny state" into our lives.
"Individual responsibility is absolutely part of the deal, but we also need to think about societal responsibility — the two go together," says Moodie.
Moodie says the paper's call to use the introduction of "legislation, regulation, taxation, pricing, ban, and restriction of advertising and sponsorship" to reduce death and disability from non-communicable diseases is not a naïve call.
"Some governments — led by Bloomberg in New York — are already doing this."
Separately on Tuesday, a New Zealand coroner David Crerar called for health authorities to consider lowering the caffeine percentage limit in carbonated drinks or create more specific warning labels.
Crerer said excessive pop consumption — often 10 litres a day — contributed to the death of a 30-year-old from a heart attack three years ago.
New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg most recently banned the sale of sugared beverages larger than 16 ounces (473 millilitres) in sports stadiums, movie theatres and restaurants. He has previously banned trans fats from restaurant foods and required chain restaurants to post calories counts on menus.
Moodie says it took 40 years from discovering tobacco's health impacts to regulating against it.
The lesson from that fight, adds Moodie, is that only government regulation, or the threat of it, will force the food, alcohol and drink multinationals to produce healthier products.
"It's a long, slow process but we're not going away," he says.