On the third morning of ECOICO, Joao Breda (Portugal) and Tim Lobstein (UK) chaired a Plenary Discussion on The Global Syndemic - Social Lobbying and Policy Influence from Industry.
This session took as its starting point The 2019 Lancet Commission report: The Global Syndemic of Obesity, Undernutrition, and Climate Change. The report highlights how policy inertia is a major challenge for action on obesity: weak public demand and lack of political will for change, alongside strong corporate opposition to policy implementation, have resulted in economic, food, transport and other global systems continuing to drive ill-health (especially malnutrition) and climate change.
The panellists brought examples from their different contexts to illustrate how interference from the corporate food industry undermines health goals. In the US, Bill Dietz - co-chair of the Lancet Commission on Obesity and Director of George Washington University's Global Center for Prevention and Wellness – described how the food industry used its access to Congress, as well as technical loop-holes in the process, to boycott new recommendations proposing regulations on advertising to children. In Mexico, Simon Barquera – Director of the Nutrition and Health Research Center, at the National Institute of Public Health – described how interference from the corporate food industry is the most challenging factor in their work to tackle the growing epidemic of obesity in his country. After initial unsuccessful efforts to work with industry, public health officials now focus on defending nutrition policies from corporate strategies to hinder implementation.
As in the US where the food industry is close to Congress, corporate powers in Mexico dominate decision making committees. Denying evidence, deflecting, and distracting attention from proposed policies, and delaying processes are common techniques used, many of the same tactics used by the tobacco industry. To tackle the current policy inertia, systemic solutions and economic shifts are required. A key area for action is subsidies, which could be re-aligned to enable production of healthy and sustainable foods. In response to questions from the audience, Professor Corinna Hawkes - Director of the Centre for Food Policy at City, University of London - highlighted the imperative to change the financial incentivises around food production and consumption.
Prof Hawkes also raised the opportunities during the COVID-19 crisis for governments to, for example, develop a healthy food stimulus package that would boost the economy and improve population health. Unfortunately, however, governments do not seem to be stepping up and there remains a responsibility for the private sector to change its business models too.