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NewsBLOG | Protecting our right to health

Protecting our right to health


Author: Dr Tim Lobstein

Director of Policy, World Obesity Federation


*The following blog first appeared on International Diabetes Federation's (IDF) website in support of World Obesity Day.

A curious event took place a year ago this December, in the great Assembly Hall of the United Nations in Geneva. It was the 3rd Annual UN Forum on Business and Human Rights (1-3 Dec 2014) and it took the theme “Advancing business and human rights globally: alignment, adherence and accountability” 

It was curious because there were four opening keynote speeches, starting with Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, and finishing with Paul Bulcke, CEO of Nestlé. In between these two business leaders came a judge and a trade union official. It was clear that the organisers of the conference had a focus: they thought that food systems, food production, food distribution, food marketing, food availability, were important to the Human Rights and Business agenda, and were properly a subject for ‘alignment, adherence and accountability.’

Indeed, food should be central to human rights. Yet both of the speeches by these two senior executives – representing the two largest suppliers of mass produced food products in the world – revealed a gaping great hole. Neither of the CEO’s talked about the products their companies made and which they spent a large proportion of their global turnover promoting to populations world-wide. To these CEOs, the concept of human rights appeared to focus on concerns about their work force, the labour conditions, the medical care, the housing, the health and safety in the supply chain. There was no mention of the health implications of their products – the sugars and starches, the oils and fats and trans fats, the salt and cosmetic additives – the cheap ingredients and expensive advertising which make up the business model for these companies and ensure the flow of dividends to shareholders.

Only at one side event, organised with the support of the Norwegian government, was there a hint of criticism, namely the suggestion that the advertising and active promotion of unhealthy food products could constitute an inducement to harmful behaviour, and could undermine the right to health and the right to food, two key elements in the protection of human rights. 

Earlier that year, and just a few hundred metres away in Geneva, civil society groups had called for a Framework Convention to protect and promote healthy diets at a well-attended side event during the 2014 World Health Assembly, and they repeated this at a similar event at the 2015 World Health Assembly.Proposals for such a Convention have also been made in UN human rights meetings by the outgoing UN Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter, and twice by the outgoing UN Rapporteur on the Right to Health, Anand Grover. These calls have been further echoed at a meeting on corporations in the global food system and human rights which brought together legal experts and civil society groups in Oslo in late 2014.

Bit by bit the movement is taking shape, backed by a gradual shift in the social discourse. This has been especially true for sugar, where the food industry is realising that while it may win some battles it may be losing the war. The US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee called for maximum of 10% dietary calories from added sugars in its 2015 report, echoing a World Health Organization expert report which made the same recommendation, and added the idea that 5% might be a better target. The UK government’s expert committee on nutrition then consolidated this tougher level by proposing a target for population consumption of ‘no more than of 5%’ of daily calories from free sugars and minimising consumption of sugary soft drinks, followed by a report from Public Health England on the evidence for a range of public health initiatives to meet this target. 

Also in the UK, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has championed the concept of a sugar tax or soda tax, while Coca-Cola has produced a series of defensive advertisements claiming to be helping UK householders reduce the sugar they are consuming, fuelling the notion that sugar consumption is a bad idea. Meanwhile in Mexico, a well-funded consumer campaign led to the introduction of taxes on snacks and sugar-sweetened beverages which appears to have reduced soft drink consumption by at least 6% over the year 2014, rising to 12% by the end of the year, and 17% among lower-income consumers – a significant improvement in public health nutrition. 

Taxes on sweetened beverages have followed elsewhere – Barbados, Chile, the Navajo nation in the USA and the city of Berkeley, California. Such moves to reduce soft drinks consumption have not always been successful, of course, with heavy investment in attack advertising and lobbying by the beverage industry, especially in San Francisco against a soda tax, and in New York City against the then mayor Michael Bloomberg’s attempts to limit serving size containers in fast food outlets. 

The industry’s biggest fear is a change in social perceptions. They can cope with taxes and even with government committees and negative consumer advice, and they can cope when their products are in the ‘consume only occasionally’ category of national dietary guidelines. They can outmanoeuvre these problems with clever pricing and clever marketing. They have avoided attempts to label sugar as causing acne (‘no evidence’) or dental decay (‘use fluoride’) and even obesity and diabetes (‘get exercise’). But they cannot avoid a general discourse that identifies their products as socially toxic. 

The danger is that while in Europe and the Americas the soft drinks industry may be losing its battle to maintain sales of sugary soft drinks, in Africa, the Middle East and Asia it continues to enjoy expanding markets. In these regions there is a need to extend the social discourse we are developing in the western hemisphere into a legal discourse – one which makes the protection of dietary health a legal right, and a curb on the marketing of junk food the proper subject of an international treaty.