The impact of alcohol and nutrition on health was among the topics that delegates from various countries recently discussed at the 75th World Health Assembly (WHA) in Geneva. While both are recognized as a “disaster in slow motion” in the field of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), the action plans that were adopted during the Assembly will do little to tackle the causes. depths of the problem.
While most countries recognized alcohol consumption as a public health priority and supported the proposed action plan, only a few called for effective action against the alcohol industry. The delegate from Estonia, for example, stated that “there is an inherent conflict of interest with the alcohol industry which can undermine the development of public policies”. The Seychelles delegate highlighted the dangers of commercial interference and said “ambitious action is needed against industry lobbying”. The US, on the other hand, asserted that some trade-related recommendations in the action plan fall outside WHO’s mandate and called for more multisectoral collaboration, code language to give the private sector a voice. Table.
Statements made by countries during the debate on WHO’s food safety strategy revealed the plan’s lack of understanding of the links between nutrition and health. Countries welcomed the strategy and reiterated the importance of ensuring food safety and working towards uniform standards, but did not question the broader impact of food systems on public health. Only Colombia intervened stating that “there is a need to address our global food system, including its impact on health as well as the impact of marketing. We must reduce the risk of future zoonoses. »
Alcohol and ultra-processed foods kill
Worldwide, three million people die each year as a result of alcohol consumption. That’s one person every 10 seconds. Alcohol consumption is considered one of the main risk factors for poor health worldwide, accounting for around 5% of all deaths and 5.1% of global disease burden. Similarly, ultra-processed foods are associated with a higher overall risk of mortality in adults, they increase the risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease and are linked to health problems such as obesity and stunting. . Studies showed that the negative effects of ultra-processed foods are more likely to be felt in low-income communities, where convenience or packaged meals are more accessible than fresh, nutritious foods.
Yet the food and alcohol industries do everything they can to market and sell their products. With advertising bans on the rise and markets saturated in many high-income countries, transnational food and alcohol companies have found new ways to promote their unhealthy products and avoid strict regulation, particularly in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), where the volume of soft drink consumption increase by an average annual growth rate of 5.2% per person between 1997 and 2009.
New marketing strategies
In early May 2022, the WHO published a report highlighting loopholes in the regulation of alcohol marketing, which showed that young people and heavy drinkers are increasingly targeted by alcohol advertising to the detriment of their health. The report also shows that six transnational alcohol corporations (TNACs) are among the world’s 100 largest spenders on advertising for any product or service, and that the industry is increasingly relying on marketing techniques such as promotions, product placement and online social media advertising. .
In the LMICs in particular, efforts have been made to recruit more female drinkers. Women are seen by producers as an untapped consumer group, developing marketing programs specifically for women has become a key TNAC strategy to drive sales. These include developing “drinking rituals” to make drinking beer special, using social media posts with influencers to promote alcohol brands, and giving alcoholic beverages a pink color to market them more easily as “drinks for women”.
Much like the alcohol industry, Big Food promotes its unhealthy products on social media platforms and advertises indiscriminately at global sporting events like the FIFA World Cup, seen by billion people in the world. The industry also uses celebrities in advertisements to firmly anchor its products in popular culture. McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and a host of liquor companies have quickly tapped into the popularity of reality TV shows by promoting their brands on recent editions of Big Brother Brazil and Nigeria, seen by millions and millions. million young people.
Commercial interests trump health justice
Manufacturers of unhealthy products use different lobbying tactics to avoid strict regulation and receive favorable treatment from governments, including: pressure to influence and shape government policy towards the WHO.
Direct contact between governments and the alcohol and food industry is often legitimized by the companies’ alleged contribution to economic growth. Economic imperatives, mainly in the form of trade and investment regimes, have always played an important role in facilitating the entry of transnational corporations into LMIC markets. Vietnam, for example, removed restrictions on foreign direct investment (FDI) as a condition of entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO). This has resulted in increased investment by transnational food companies and enabled significant growth in sales of sweet products. beverages. Likewise, a comparison between Peru and Bolivia showed a 122% increase in soft drink production following Peru’s ratification of the U.S.-Peru Free Trade Agreement, compared to a minimal change in Bolivia which did not have a trade agreement with the United States.
The industry also spends huge sums of money to build a positive public image. The food and alcohol industry uses corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives to present itself in a favorable light, take advantage of favorable government regulations and indirectly market its brands. As part of Project Last Mile, a public-private partnership (PPP) involving The Coca-Cola Company, USAID, The Global Fund and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Coca-Cola branded vehicles are used to deliver medical supplies to remote villages, along with their unhealthy product. During the pandemic, the food and beverage industries have expanded the scope of their CSR activities by fostering even stronger partnerships with governments and international agencies. PepsiCo reportedly spent $49 million to support international organizations such as Save The Children, the Red Cross and local nonprofits with food aid. Heineken donated 15 million euros support the relief efforts of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
WHA misses the point
At the World Health Assembly, countries failed to curb the commercial and economic drivers of alcohol consumption and the proliferation of ultra-processed foods. Although more effective regulation of the food and alcohol industry is clearly needed, action plans developed to reduce their adverse health impact remain silent on the root causes of the problem.
The action to plan (2022-2030) to effectively implement the global strategy to reduce the harmful use of alcohol as a public health priority does not provide concrete guidance on addressing trade barriers to effective alcohol control. ‘alcohol. The plan does not have an explicit section for alcohol control. It advocates uniquely how to manage commercial influences and essentially puts civil society and governments on a level playing field with industry, welcoming producers of alcohol and ultra-processed foods as an equal partner in implementing implementation of the plan.
WHO World strategy on food safety, on the other hand, completely misses the point. It focuses only on foodborne illnesses and neglects the importance of health systems for public health goals in nutrition, climate change, food sovereignty, and the environmental damage caused by microplastics. Instead of looking for ways to strengthen food sovereignty, the WHO plan is geared towards aligning food standards and facilitating international trade, and favors large transnational food manufacturers over small local producers.
Without stronger action to counter the influence of transnational alcohol and food corporations, the damage to health caused by the industry will continue to persist. WHO and governments must take a clearer stance against industry and work with civil society to ensure that trade and commercial interests do not trump health justice.
WHO Watch team members are Abhishek Royal, Alan Rossi Silva, Aletha Wallace, Anton Sundberg, Ben Verboom, Dian Maria Blandina, Jasper Thys, Maria Alejandra Rojas, Marta Caminiti, Sarai Keestra, Sopo Japaridze, Lauren Paremoer, Jyotsna Singh and Gargeya. Telakapalli.
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