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Powerful industries are driving ill-health and premature mortality – when will we say, enough is enough? 

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7,000 people in the European WHO region die every day from preventable causes 

Enough is enough – those were the words of Dr Hans Henri P Kluge, the WHO regional director for Europe, this week (June 12), as he called out industry tactics that drive ill-health, including exploitation of vulnerable people through targeted marketing strategies and misleading and false claims about the benefits of their products or their environmental credentials. 

The new landmark report: Commercial determinants of noncommunicable diseases in the WHO European Region, found that four corporate products – tobacco, ultra-processed foods, fossil fuels and alcohol – cause 19 million deaths per year globally, or 34% of all deaths.  

In the European Region alone, the industries are wholly or partly responsible for 2.7 million deaths per year. The report explains how a small number of powerful transnational corporations wield significant power over the political and legal contexts in which they operate, and work to obstruct public interest regulations which could impact their profit margins. 

Launching the report, Frank Vandenbroucke, Belgian deputy prime minister said: 

“For too long we have considered risk factors as being mostly linked to individual choices. We need to reframe the problem as a systemic problem…restrict marketing, and stop interference in policymaking.” 

The report goes on to set out what can be done about this and issues a call to action for the 53 Member States in the European Region to tackle commercial influence at all levels – individual, environmental, public policy and political economic systems – and enforcing stronger regulations in a range of areas, including: 

  • marketing of health-harming products 
  • monopolistic practices 
  • transparency, lobbying, funding and conflicts of interest 
  • taxation of multinational corporations 
  • job security and labour conditions 
  • exploitation of vulnerable populations during crises 
  • funding and support for civil society organizations to ensure their independence. 

Further, the report recommends the need for trade agreements to prioritize public health and for stronger health-oriented interpretations of economic laws to ensure public health does not continue to lose out to narrow, outdated economic measures. 

In respect of how to deal with alcohol, controls on price, promotion and availability have long been the WHO’s recommended policy measures on how governments should deal with the alcohol problem.  

Yet governments and regulators are slow to act on evidence-based solutions to curb the harm of industries that run roughshod over people’s right to health and life. We know the why here– very simply, the power of the corporate lobby. 

The case studies in the report – there are more than 20 – give real world examples of how this happens. These give people concrete examples that cannot be denied. One of the case studies looks at Ireland’s path to being the first country in the world to put comprehensive health warning labels on alcohol products, finally due to come to fruition in 2026. 

It states:  

“The significant delays in the adoption and implementation of these measures were the result of a well-organized campaign from within the global alcohol industry. In addition to relentless pressure placed on Irish legislators, in an attempt to oppose and shape the legislation, industry actors have sought to exploit international trade and EU internal market laws to oppose its introduction.”

There was “evidence also of concerted effort by industry to denigrate the well-established scientific findings that alcohol causes cancer and liver disease, through bodies such as Drinks Ireland, citing reports they had commissioned from authors and organizations, such as the Gradient Corporation.” 

While many in the research and policy community have known for some time what this report is telling us, what it does is for the first time bring together a clear and unrelenting mass of evidence that simply cannot be ignored anymore. Politicians, media and decision makers cannot claim not to know, not to understand the issue. Simply, they cannot deny the huge body of evidence before their eyes. 

The evidence in this report is painstakingly researched and documented. The solutions are clear and unequivocal. The question is, will our politicians be brave enough to finally say – enough is enough.