Time to Check Unfettered Power of Corporate Giants Over Health
When The Coca-Cola Company was invited to the decision-making table of the UN Climate Change Conference in Egypt (COP 27) last year—as the primary sponsor—it set off immediate alarm bells among climate activists.
Coca-Cola isn’t merely the world’s leading plastic polluter, it’s brought the “greenwashing” playbook—creating the appearance of corporate social responsibility to offset any government regulation—to other areas where it has a negative social impact, including health. The multi-national corporation has already underwritten the worldwide obesity and noncommunicable disease epidemic and continues to fuel unhealthy diets with a constant stream of sugar-laden drinks. Yet it uses its vast communications apparatus to position itself—without any substantial commitment—as interested in health.
Public health experts describe the impact of these non-state actions as commercial determinants of health, better understood as actions of the private sector that affect public health either positively or negatively. To public health experts, Coca-Cola’s engagement with COP27 is a familiar tune. It’s one more example that demonstrates how multi-national companies shape health and inequity, all the while using public relations savvy and billions of dollars to create a sense of action and avoid the only evidence-driven intervention: regulation.
Many of these commercial actors claim they are aware of their impact on health, climate, and equity, but have done very little to offset their impact. In 2021, the food giant Nestlé conceded that more than 60% of its mainstream products did not meet a “…recognized definition of health” and even with reformulation, some of its products would never be considered “healthy.” Despite this public acknowledgement, Nestlé has continued to produce and market ultra-processed foods and drinks, filled with salt, sugar and fat, with casual warnings about consuming their products “…in moderation.”
While crowing about its commitment to sustainability at COP27, on the ground in Mexico, Coca-Cola, along with other beverage companies like Heineken, continues to extract billions of liters of water from public reservoirs for production. Concurrently, Mexico is facing its worst water crisis in 30 years. The beverage giants have made paltry offerings of small amounts of clean water to the Mexican public, but throughout the country’s north, many people are still finding dry taps.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, “big food” companies—fast food giants such as Burger King and McDonald’s—used cause marketing campaigns to link their ultra-processed products to charitable organizations, all while actively lobbying against healthy food policies in countries like Brazil and Colombia. These industries have spent time and money to position themselves as leaders in global social movements, yet their actions tell a very different story.
Time and again, corporate behemoths create severe consequences for humans, animals, and the environment with little remorse. These burdens fall heaviest on countries and communities with historically poor access to nutritious food and poor infrastructure buckling under the demands of planetary damage, leading to poor health and further inequity. These structural inequalities perpetuate a cycle of chronic disease that shows no signs of slowing as profits for commercial actors keep climbing.
Through recognizing the shared burden of these commercial determinants of health, we can bring together siloed social movements to unify their efforts to protect communities and bring government regulation as needed checks on the impact commercial forces have on our lives.
One example can be found in Chile, where galvanized public support and uncompromising advocacy from a consortium of health, children’s rights, and other groups compelled Chilean legislators to implement the Law of Food Labelling and Advertising in 2016. The law explicitly reined in a range of duplicitous marketing tactics, codified tax hikes on non-nutritional goods, instituted new mandatory front-of-package warning labels, and made it prohibitive to market ultra-processed products to kids under 14. By 2020, the proportion of Chilean households that purchased unhealthy beverages decreased by more than 10%.
Smart, scalable, and easily implementable solutions like this need to be supported and replicated by leaders from related social movements dedicated to combatting the constant assaults on health from corporate interests. We must expose their empty assurances of future diligence and blatant greenwashing for what they are: calculated maneuvers in the interminable quest for greater profits. We must band together to endorse sensible limits on corporate power and influence over our health, and wellbeing. From reversing the effects of climate change to promoting healthy food policies, change lies in sharing successful tactics and combining efforts, rather than the Sisyphean task of fighting alone.
Trish Cotter, MPH is the global lead of the Food Policy Program at Vital Strategies.
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