Less than two years ago, expressions such as “flatten the curve”, “contact tracking”, “social distancing” and many others related to the covid-19 pandemic became part of our lexicon and became part of the everyday communication. People everywhere learned more about epidemiology, virology, and immunology than they ever imagined. Yet despite increased attention to public health, few can name the world’s leading cause of death. That is no accident.
The noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) —Especially heart disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes — cause more than 40 million deaths a year, put pressure on health systems, and carry significant social and economic costs. However, they do not attract remotely the same attention as infectious diseases, such as COVID-19, even though they are largely preventable.
We have known for a long time that the consumption of alcohol, tobacco and diets high in fat, sodium and sugars increase the incidence of NCDs. And despite some progress in recent years (especially in reducing tobacco use), these risk factors do not receive the attention they deserve in discussions around the world. This is in part because the companies that make, advertise, and sell these products have a major impact on how NCDs are perceived by the public.
Noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) do not attract remotely the same attention as infectious diseases, even though they are largely preventable
Tobacco, alcoholic beverage and ultra-processed food companies have long played down the public health effects of their products. And since the pandemic began, they have used Covid-19-related marketing campaigns and corporate social responsibility initiatives to further distract attention.
One study conducted in 18 countries Between March and July 2020 he compiled more than 280 examples of the ways in which Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Nestlé and PepsiCo took advantage of the public health emergency to promote unhealthy products to vulnerable populations. In Brazil, Nestlé and Danone donated ultra-processed food to a government program that provides food to low-income residents. Coke contributed their sugary drinks in food packages in South Africa. And the Colombian food manufacturer Alpina promoted a yogurt with high sugar contentr as essential to improve the immune system.
Similarly, according to a recent report, tobacco companies used corporate social responsibility activities related to the pandemic to expand their reach to high-ranking government officials and repair their public image. In a bold example, Philip Morris International donated respirators a hospitals in Greece and Ukraine.
The inconsistency of a system working side-by-side with some of the biggest NCD drivers as it tries to respond to COVID-19 should lead to widespread outrage, but those activities have largely gone unnoticed and have generated no comment.
It is true that in some cases companies play a role by delivering goods or services that governments do not provide, but the inability of the State to cover these shortcomings should not be an excuse for companies to hide the damage they cause. When big tobacco companies or ultra-processed food producers influence governments With donations of food or medical equipment and other social initiatives, public health efforts to combat NCDs prove futile.
The World Health Organization recently documented the contribution of corporations to health problems and increasing inequality in the world. Addressing the NCD pandemic must strictly regulate its influence on policymaking. Governments must fulfill their obligation to protect citizens against the harmful activities of third parties (including tobacco companies and multinational companies producing ultra-processed foods and beverages). Failure to control these corporate activities implies violating the fundamental human right to health of its citizens.
If tobacco were a virus, long ago we would have called it a pandemic and the world would have used all its resources to stop it
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the OMS
The experience with Big Tobacco provides examples of ways in which the international community can deal with private sector interference in public health. After the adoption of the Framework Convention for Tobacco Control, which came into force in 2005, governments around the world recognized that the private sector had engaged in concerted efforts to undermine and weaken efforts to control tobacco use. Some countries took measures to deal with the problem.
In light of the tactics used by corporations during the pandemic, we must adopt legal measures to avoid the normalization of activities that, disguised as displays of social responsibility, offer short-term benefits to communities at the expense of their public health. Governments must not only ensure that the public is aware of the harms caused by tobacco, alcohol, and unhealthy foods, they must also put in place measures to limit policymakers’ interactions with those industries.
What said recently the director general of the WHO Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, “if tobacco were a virus, long ago we would have called it a pandemic and the world would have used all its resources to stop it. Instead, we have a multi-billion dollar business that profits from death and disease. ” Your comment applies equally to other products that contribute to NCDs.
Governments must take strong action to counter the role of the private sector in undermining public health. Even when corporations offer to help a community, authorities must ensure that assistance does not solve problems by creating new ones.
Andrés Constantin, Associate with the Healthy Families Initiative, is Acting Deputy Director of the O’Neill Institute’s Master of Health Law programs and Adjunct Professor of Law at Georgetown University.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021. Spanish translation by Ant-Translation