It has been less than two years since phrases like “flatten the curve”, “contact tracing”, “social distancing” and many others related to the Covid-19 pandemic entered the lexicon and are part of the daily communication. All over the world, people have learned more about epidemiology, virology and immunology than they expected.
And yet, despite the increased attention to public health, few can name the leading cause of death worldwide. It is not an accident.
Noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), particularly heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes, cause more than 40 million deaths per year, strain health systems and impose demands on health. significant social and economic costs. But they don’t get nearly the same attention as infectious diseases like Covid-19, even though they are largely preventable.
Smoking, alcohol consumption, and diets high in fat, sodium and sugar have long been known to increase the incidence of NCDs. But, despite some progress in recent years, especially in reducing smoking, these risk factors are not getting the attention they deserve in discussions around the world. This is in part because the companies that manufacture, promote and sell these products play a major role in how the public perceives NCDs.
Tobacco, alcohol and food manufacturers have long played down the effects of their products on public health. And, since the start of the pandemic, they have used Covid-19-related marketing campaigns and corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives to further distract the public’s attention.
A study spanning 18 countries, conducted from March to July 2020, collected more than 280 examples of how Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Nestlé and PepsiCo exploited the public health emergency to market unhealthy products to vulnerable populations. In Brazil, Nestlé and Danone donated ultra-processed foods to a government program to provide food to low-income residents. Coca-Cola brought its sugary drinks to food packages in South Africa. And Colombian food maker Alpina has been promoting high-sugar yogurt as an essential food for improving the immune system.
Likewise, according to a recent report, tobacco companies have used pandemic-related CSR activities to expand access to senior officials and repair their public image. In a bold example, Philip Morris International donated ventilators to hospitals in Greece and Ukraine.
The inconsistency of a system that works hand-in-hand with some of the biggest contributors to NCDs while trying to respond to Covid-19 is expected to spark widespread outrage. But these activities have gone largely unnoticed and unnoticed.
It is true that in some cases companies have stepped in to provide goods or services that governments have not provided. But the inability of states to fill these gaps should not allow companies to launder the damage they cause. When Big Tobacco or Big Food influence governments with food or medical equipment donations and other high-profile goodwill initiatives, public health efforts to tackle NCDs become futile.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recently documented the contribution of business to poor health outcomes and growing inequalities around the world. To combat the NCD pandemic, their influence on policymaking must be strictly regulated. Governments must fulfill their obligation to protect their citizens from the harmful activities of third parties, including multinational food, drink and tobacco industries. Failure to monitor these corporate activities amounts to a violation of their citizens’ fundamental right to health.
Big Tobacco’s experience offers insight into how the international community can approach industry interference in public health. Following the adoption of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which entered into force in 2005, governments around the world recognized that the industry was engaged in a concerted effort to undermine and thwart tobacco control efforts, and some countries have adopted measures to combat the problem.
In light of the tactics companies deployed during the Covid-19 pandemic, legal measures must be adopted to denormalize activities which, masquerading as displays of ‘social responsibility’, offer short-term benefits to communities which are done to the detriment of the public interest. health. Governments must not only ensure public awareness of the harms caused by tobacco, alcohol and unhealthy foods, they must also establish measures to limit the interactions of decision-makers with these industries.
As WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus recently said: “If tobacco were a virus, it would have been labeled a pandemic long ago and the world would mobilize all resources to stop it. Instead, this is a multi-billion dollar business. profiting from death and disease. ”His comment is no less applicable to other products that contribute to NCDs.
Governments must take decisive action to counter the role of the private sector in degrading public health. Even when companies step in to help a community, managers need to make sure that help doesn’t solve problems by creating new ones.
Andres Constantin, Associate with the Healthy Families Initiative, is Acting Assistant Director of Health Law LLM Programs at the O’Neill Institute and Assistant Professor of Law at Georgetown University in the United States.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021
(Exclusive to The Daily Star)