The corporations behind health-harming products: Leeds academic co-authors damning WHO report

Lecturer at the School of Law Dr Clare Patton is lead author of a WHO/Europe report on the commercial determinants of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs).

The groundbreaking World Health Organisation (WHO)/Europe report blames four industries – tobacco, ultra-processed foods, alcohol and fossil fuel – for 2.7 million death every year in Europe. It calls on governments to impose stronger regulations on these health-harming products.

Growing evidence of policy obstruction

The research behind the report demonstrates that there is a growing body of evidence that corporations in these four industries are behind the rise in NCDs, such as cardiovascular diseases and cancer, due to their ‘harmful’ marketing practises and obstruction of NCD policy implementation. Evidence reveals that these activities worsen pre-existing inequalities in society. 

Four industries kill at least 7,000 people in our region every day… Industry tactics include exploitation of vulnerable people through targeted marketing strategies, misleading consumers, and making false claims about the benefits of their products or their environmental credentials.

Dr Hans Henri P Kluge, the WHO regional director for Europe (including Central Asia)

Research that drives policy

The unprecedented report is based on a project funded by the Higher Education Authority (Ireland), while Dr Patton was based at Queen’s University Belfast, and includes case studies of industry (including tobacco, junk food, and commercial milk formula companies) using emergencies to promote products. As Clare remarks:

Our report focuses on the ‘playbook’ that health-harming industries use to maximise profits at the expense of consumer health.

I want to ensure we focus on companies that impact child health, such as infant formula companies. These companies use the same marketing playbook as other industries but have the additional effect of impacting health from a very young age.

Governments must consider the best interests of the child when legislating and it’s long past the time that governments across Europes strengthened laws to protect children from predatory marketing strategies.

The report was launched at a WHO/Europe day-long forum in Brussels on 12 June hosted by the Belgian Ministry of Health. Two of its aims were to highlight corporate interference strategies designed to obstruct policy around NCDs and to debate how best to engage policy makers in the commercial determinants of NCDs.

Clare Patton’s work in this area is ongoing. She has several forthcoming publications that delve into the human rights responsibilities of health-harming businesses. These works present compelling economic and social justice arguments, advocating for dismantling the corporate playbook to safeguard population health.

Image by Brastock Images/Adobe Stock

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