UN Meeting on NCDs: More on Industry Role

In last week’s CHW commentary I asked, “Will the UN High Level Meeting on Non-Communicable Diseases Stand up to Multinational Corporations?” This week, I refer readers to several other recent analyses of the UN meeting scheduled for September 19th and 20th at the United Nations in New York City.

In a feature in last week’s British Medical Journal, Deborah Cohen investigates whether industry influence could derail the UN meeting. According to Cohen, who had access to the meeting’s draft document, “years of planning may be set to unravel. With only weeks to go before the summit, years of negotiations seem to be stalling.

“Discussions have stopped on the document that forms the spine of the summit, and charities are concerned that governments are trying to wriggle out of commitments.”

Cohen also notes that “ protection of financial interests” often blocks action to address the deeper determinants of NCDs. She describes a successful campaign by the European food industry to thwart a proposal before the European Parliament to create a traffic light labeling system for food products. Using the playbook written by the tobacco industry, food companies told members of the European Parliament that the any new regulations would lead to job losses.

Meanwhile, a statement released by the global advocacy group the Non-Communicable Disease Alliance, warned that “international progress on non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and chronic respiratory disease, is at grave risk, because of recent efforts by some member states to postpone and weaken United Nations negotiations.” Apparently developed nations such as the US, UK and European Union states are unwilling to make financial commitments to reducing NCDs or to set measurable targets for reduction.

In another British Medical Journal analysis on the upcoming NCD meeting, Dr. Derek Yach, a former executive director of WHO and now Senior Vice President of Global Health and Agricultural Policy at PepsiCo, asserts that the UN meeting is “a perfect forum to develop a set of actions aimed at redesigning the food system to make meeting the optimal nutrition needs of all its first priority.” He warns, however, that “prescriptions will succeed only when farmers, food and agricultural companies, non-governmental agencies, and parts of the UN that have yet to be engaged in the high level meeting are brought into the process.”

Just what role food and agricultural companies ought to play at the UN meeting and other public deliberations on NCD policy is the question of the day. A recent report released by the UK House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee concluded that industry’s call for voluntary codes of conduct were unlikely to be effective in changing dietary behavior and that stronger regulations may increase rather than decrease consumer choices.

Another perspective on the role of industry appeared in a reviewon obesity policy published in last week’s theme issue of Lanceton the topic of obesity. The authors recognize the opportunities for leadership at the UN meeting but note that to date “the most powerful activities by the private sector relevant to public policy are undoubtedly lobbying activities, which often undermine policies aimed at reducing obesity—e.g., in relation to regulations on marketing to children, traffic light labelling, and taxes on unhealthy foods.”

While most of the recent focus of industry role in NCDs has been on food and beverage companies, other observers have noted the importance of the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries. In a recent commentary in the British Medical Journal, Simon Chapman, a tobacco researcher and director of Australia’s Action on Smoking and Health has urged the UN High Level meeting to reject the Big Pharma’s effort to medicalize tobacco cessation, urging that promoting unassisted tobacco cessation is a more realistic and effective strategy for most nations.

In later posts, I’ll examine the role industry representatives actually play at the upcoming UN meeting.


Image Credits:

1. Mononoke via Flickr.

2. Brent Nashville via Flickr.

3. Stephencannon via Flickr.