Since 2008, Corporations and Health Watch has been monitoring the impact of corporations on the health of the public.

How do industry practices affect human health?

Industry practices that contribute to unhealthy behavior include product design, marketing (advertising, product promotion, etc.) retail distribution, and pricing. For example, the tobacco industry has targeted advertising at youth and women, increasing their smoking rates; soft drink companies establish contracts that give them exclusive rights to market their products in schools, contributing to childhood obesity; the automobile industry has heavily promoted polluting and accident-prone Sports Utility Vehicles and lobbied against stricter safety and environmental standards; and the pharmaceutical industry has promoted profitable drugs that its own research has shown to be dangerous.

In the last decades, industry efforts to increase promotion of harmful products and reduce public control of such practices appear to have grown. Industry has hired more lobbyists, increased contributions to political campaigns, found new venues for advertising and other commercial activities, targeted vulnerable populations — including African Americans, Latinos, other people of color, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities and young people — for advertising, and moved to limit their liability for harmful products. Thus, it seems likely that the health-damaging consequences of corporate practices will increase, and along with it the need for research and advocacy efforts to modify these practices will grow.

Why these six industries?

For its first period, from 2008 to 2019, Corporations and Health Watch has focused on six industries — alcohol, automobile, firearm, food and beverages, pharmaceutical, and tobacco — whose practices and products have been linked with a wide range of bad health outcomes, including heart disease, cancer, stroke, respiratory illnesses, obesity, homicide, and unintentional injury and death, among others.

These industries also play central roles in the US  and global economies, making them visible targets for public health action. Evidence shows that the products of these sectors have a substantial impact on current patterns of US and global illnesses and deaths, suggesting that changing their practices could lead to significant health improvements.

Finally, the practices of each of these industries have elicited responses from health, consumer, environmental and other activists and researchers, providing a body of evidence to examine for insights into effective advocacy strategies for reducing the impact of corporate policies on health.

Why has CHW expanded its focus in 2020?

While the six industries CHW monitored continue to play an outsize role in global patterns of health and disease, scholarship from the last decade(see More Readings below) has focused scientific, policy and advocacy attention on other industries and other issues.  Among the other sectors  that have attracted attention for their impact on health are the fossil fuel industry, financial and banking industries,  technology companies , tourism, real estate and construction, and gambling and gaming.  In addition, as the concept of commercial determinants of health has emerged, many public health researchers and practitioners have started to look at the market economy as a whole and at the capitalist system as a crucial social determinant of health.  Going forward, CHW will also highlight new publications and reports in these wider areas.   

What is a campaign to change corporate practices?

A campaign is a time-limited and place-specific advocacy initiative in which one or more organizations mount coordinated activities to achieve explicit changes in corporate practices perceived to harm health. While these campaigns are often supported by social movements, broader and more ongoing popular mobilizations, the definition used here distinguishes between the more time and objective limited campaign and broader social movements.

Campaigns can target individual corporations or an entire industry, or they can seek government action to protect public health. Campaigns can operate at the local, regional, national or global levels. Most campaigns include coalitions of different constituencies concerned about the health damage caused by a particular corporate practice. By highlighting the success and failures of current campaigns, CHW hopes to assist public health practitioners and advocates to identify best and promising practices for campaigns designed to reduce harmful corporate influences on health. 

Why is campaigning a smart strategy for improving public health?

Campaigns allow organizations to focus their resources and public attention on a specific problem in order to bring about changes in corporate practices and policy change.

While many public health advocates and researchers point to the deeper social causes of ill health, changing socioeconomic structures, eliminating poverty or ending discrimination are long term (albeit worthwhile) goals.

Working to change specific corporate practices that harm health provides an opportunity to bring about shorter-term benefits while still addressing deeper causes of health problems. In addition, campaigns offer public health advocates tactical and strategic flexibility. Campaigners can move from the legislature to the courtroom, from local to national forums, or from public health to a consumer rights framework as new windows of opportunity open or obstacles block one path. This flexibility can provide campaigns with an advantage over their often better financed but less agile opponents.

Finally, at a time when government often abdicates its responsibility from protecting public health from harmful corporate practices, campaigns provide citizens, activists and professionals an opportunity to take the initiative in promoting health.

What are the characteristics of a successful campaign to change health-damaging corporate practices?

Successful campaigns can force corporations to modify health- damaging practices, mobilize new constituencies to take action, or encourage public discussion of corporate policies.

While there is no magic formula for success, effective campaigns share some common qualities. First, successful campaigns set specific goals (e.g., withdraw a harmful product from the market, change how products are advertised, pass legislation that sets stricter safety standards). Second, successful campaigns build strong coalitions with others that support their cause, including community or nonprofit organizations, health professionals, or government officials. A few groups have created innovative relationships with the corporations or the industry that they are campaigning against in order to reach a mutually acceptable compromise. Third, effective campaigns use the media to reach new people, frame the issues, and keep pressure on corporate or government decision makers.

Finally, successful campaigns recognize the significance of intermediate goals, such as raising public awareness about the health impact of industry practices or learning what not to do to reach new groups.

What are the limitations of campaign-building as a strategy to modify health damaging corporate practices?

While campaigns are an effective way to bring pressure on a company, industry or government to make changes in health-damaging practices, they have their limitations. These campaigns are generally time limited and focused on challenging a specific corporate practice or policy. While this concentrated and energetic level of activity can help campaigns gain public recognition, it also means that campaigners can run out of funding or lose public support before achieving their goals.

From a public health perspective, campaigns need to achieve persistent and sustained change in order to improve population health, sometimes a difficult challenge. It may not be reasonable to expect groups to mobilize against all the many corporate practices that harm health; thus, campaigns should not become a substitute for active government responsibility for protecting public health. In addition, prolonged campaigning may result in “issue fatigue” among allies, the media and the public. Moreoever, some campaigns encounter well-funded and persistent opposition, making victories difficult to achieve. The success of the gun industry and the National Rifle Association in defeating most efforts to reduce gun violence by regulating the gun industry provide an example of this. On the other hand, the success of tobacco control campaigns in reducing public support for the tobacco industry over the last three decades shows that public opinion can change over time.

Where can I find other resources on Corporations and Health?

In Fall 2018, an international group of about 25 researchers, activists and public health professionals convened by Corporations and Health Watch in conjunction with the United Nations High Level Summit on Non-Communicable Diseases developed a list of relevant resources on the health impact of corporations.  You can find this subsequently updated list of references here and the list of organizations  and websites here.  For more information, contact us here.