Defining Appropriate Roles for Corporations in Public Health Research and Practice

Does industry sponsorship of health research influence the public health research agenda? Does it shape public health policy and priorities? In an editorial commentary on the report by  Fabbri et al. that is summarized above, Freudenberg notes that developing comprehensive and effective responses that can mitigate or prevent the harmful practices of lethal but legal industries is a vital public health priority. Corporate practices have become primary social determinants of premature death and preventable illnesses from noncommunicable diseases, injuries, and environmental exposures. Modifying harmful practices is a practical strategy for promoting health and reducing health inequalities. What additional research is needed to integrate the finding of Fabbri et al. on the impact of corporate sponsorship of research into a deeper understanding of the cumulative impact of the many industry practices that influence population health?  Several topics have recently attracted research attention. How can public health researchers best reduce conflicts of interest? Conflicts of interest occur when the public obligations of researchers, government officials, or corporations conflict with their private interests. Undetected or undisclosed conflicts of interest taint the validity of findings and threaten the credibility of public  health researchers. In an era when trust in many forms of authority is declining, industry affiliations that pose conflicts of interest could jeopardize the capacity of public health professionals to communicate credibly with the public to address future public health crises.

Another task is to define and assess appropriate roles for industry in setting public health policy. In the case of tobacco, the World Health Organization used the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control to draw a clear boundary for the industry role in shaping public policy. Should this approach also apply to the food, alcohol, and other industries? Or, as industry representatives argue, are the products of these industries so different from tobacco as to suggest another approach? Research that compares the practices of these industries as well as their products may provide more useful evidence for setting policies. Finally, policy research that compares the longer-term impact on the population health of various regulatory regimes can provide policymakers with the evidence needed to find an appropriate balance between government  and industry roles.

Citation: Freudenberg N. Defining Appropriate Roles for Corporations in Public Health Research and Practice. Am J Public Health. 2018 Nov;108(11):1440-1441

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