Reconciling profits and pandemics? An analysis of attitudes to commercial sector engagement in health policy and research
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University of Edinburgh, Global Public Health Unit, United Kingdom
University of Edinburgh, Sociology, United Kingdom
Publication date: 2018-03-01
Tob. Induc. Dis. 2018;16(Suppl 1):A46
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Public health's terms of engagement with unhealthy commodity industries (alcohol, tobacco and ultra-processed food and drinks) have become increasingly contested across policy and research contexts. This has become particularly significant in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals' (SDGs) commitment to partnership with private sector actors, and efforts to promote coherence across NCD policy areas. We sought to identify approaches that could attract consensus support within and across policy domains.

Using snowball sampling, we undertook an online survey of 335 health researchers, advocates and policymakers, in 40 countries, assessing responses to stated principles, claims and recommendations for engaging with unhealthy commodity industries in relation to key policy and research initiatives.

Most respondents identified a fundamental conflict between industry interests and public health objectives for all three industries, with agreement greatest in relation to tobacco and weakest for food. This pattern was replicated across diverse questions regarding potential forms of engagement, including rejecting voluntarism and partnership approaches to health policy. While awareness of tobacco industry tactics to influence policy and research was higher than for alcohol and food, most respondents rejected the view that the influence of the latter was less significant for public health. There was also substantial variation in attitudes to engagement with the emergent e-cigarette industry.

The strong consensus around restricting interactions with the tobacco industry supports increased implementation of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control's conflict of interest provisions. There is strong support for the extension of such practices to the alcohol industry, challenging current norms. More mixed responses indicate a need for greater clarity in defining the food industry, and for research analyzing links, similarities and differences across different types of unhealthy commodity producers.