The palm oil industry and noncommunicable diseases

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Rainforest cleared for palm oil planting in Indonesia Credit

Large-scale industries do not operate in isolation, but have tangible impacts on human and planetary health. An often overlooked actor in the fight against noncommunicable diseases is the palm oil industry, reports a new article in  the Bulletin of the World Health Organization.  The dominance of palm oil in the food processing industry makes it the world’s most widely produced vegetable oil. The authors applied the commercial determinants of health framework to analyze the palm oil industry. They highlight the industry’s mutually profitable relationship with the processed food industry and its impact on human and planetary health, including detrimental cultivation practices that are linked to respiratory illnesses, deforestation, loss of biodiversity and pollution. This analysis illustrates many parallels to the contested nature of practices adopted by the alcohol and tobacco industries. The article concludes with suggested actions for researchers, policy-makers and the global health community to address and mitigate the negative impacts of the palm oil industry on human and planetary health.

Citation: Kadandale S, Marten R, Smith R. The palm oil industry and noncommunicable diseases. Bulletin of the World Health Organization.2019;97(2):118.

Other recent reports on the palm oil industry:

Lustgarten A. Palm Oil Was Supposed to Help Save the Planet. Instead It Unleashed a Catastrophe. New York Times Sunday Magazine Nov. 25, 2018, p. 42.

Rainforest Action Network. Profits Over People and Planet Not ‘Performance With Purpose’ Exposing Pepsico’s Real Agenda, 2017.

Tullis P. How the world got hooked on palm oil. The Guardian, February 19, 2019.


Towards quantifiable metrics warranting industry-wide corporate death penalties

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Cholla power plant near Joseph City, Arizona, photographed on Jan. 16, 2010.PDTillman/Wikipedia

In the singular search for profits, some corporations inadvertently kill humans. If this routinely occurs throughout an industry,  this company  may no longer serve a net positive social purpose for society and should be eliminated. This article provides a path to an objective quantifiable metric for determining when an entire industry warrants the corporate death penalty. First, a theoretical foundation is developed with minimum assumptions necessary to provide evidence for corporate public purposes. This is formed into an objective quantifiable metric with publicly-available data and applied to two case studies in the U.S.: the tobacco and coal mining industries. The results show the American tobacco industry kills 4 times more people per year than it employs, and the American coal-mining industry kills more than one American every year for every coal miner employed. The results clearly warrant industry-wide corporate death penalties for both industries in America. Future work is discussed to ensure industries only exist to benefit humanity in all the societies in which they operate.

“If we know that life trumps employment because you have to be alive to work,” author Joshua Pearce of Michigan Techological University told  Michigan Tech News, “then for a company or industry to exist it must employ more people than it kills in a year. What this paper has done is set the minimum bar for industry existence.”

Full citation: Pearce, J. M. Towards quantifiable metrics warranting industry-wide corporate death penalties. Social Sciences,2019: 8(2), 62

Captured states: When EU governments are a channel for corporate interests

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The member states of the European Union are intimately involved in, and responsible for, the EU’s laws and policies. This new  report by the Corporate Europe Observatory focuses on the democratic deficit that sees too many member states, on too many issues, become captured states, allowing corporate interests to malignly influence the decisions they take on EU matters. Instead of acting in the public interest of their citizens and those in the wider EU, they often operate as channels of corporate influence. Many of the ways in which member states feed into EU decision-making are not well-known and are neither transparent nor commonly studied. This report breaks new ground by providing an overview of how member states act as middlemen for corporate interests with a focus on several European institutions.

With the Corporate Europe Observatory report, we hope to alert civil society and decision-makers to the threat that corporate lobbies, influencing member states, have on EU decision-making, and our final recommendations set out some initial steps to start to counter this corporate influence. They include:

  1. Member state governments must adopt national rules and cultures which reduce the risk of corporate influence on EU decision-making, including an end to privileged access for corporate lobbies and full lobby transparency.
  2. Member state parliamentary scrutiny and accountability on government decision-making at EU level must be strengthened. This should include both pre-decision scrutiny and post decision accountability.
  3. Urgent action is needed by the EU institutions to tackle the democratic deficit in how they operate. These will require reforms of the Council of the EU, the European Council , and the European Commission’s comitology process and advisory groups.
  4. We urgently need new models for citizens to both find out more about, and have a say on, the EU matters with which member states are tasked with deciding. This could include participatory hearings, at the national level, on upcoming pieces of EU legislation; on-line consultations; and more.

The Commercial Determinants of Non-Communicable Diseases(NCDs): Developing Strategies for Prevention



Aadeliah Maker Diedericks, David Sanders, Fran Baum, Carlos Monteiro, Nicholas Freudenberg and Téa Collins at the Prince Mahidol Awards Conference (PMAC).

At the 2019 Prince Mahidol Conference on Global Health held in Bangkok, Thailand on the theme of the political economy of Non Communicable Diseases (NCDs) from January 29 to February 3, 2019, a special session on commercial influences on NCDs analyzed the role of the food, alcohol, tobacco, banking and other sectors in shaping the global prevalence and distribution of non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular conditions, diabetes, hypertension and some forms of cancer.  Panelists sought to answer these questions:

  • What are the commercial drivers influencing the risk factors of NCDs in different contexts?
  • What is the role of industries such as food and beverage, tobacco, alcohol,  and extractive industries in influencing the commercial determinants?
  • What are the common strategies of marketing to children and adolescents (e.g. particularly digital marketing) and mechanisms to reduce exposure to NCD risk factors, notably alcohol, tobacco and unhealthy foods and beverages?
  • How have governments engaged with industry to mitigate the risk to health and enhance public health benefits? What has worked and what has not?
  • What is the role played by different institutions in facilitating or regulating the commercial determinants, including Governments, and other stakeholders such as WTO, multilateral organizations and civil society?

The panel included these presentations:

The Commercial Determinants of NCDs: Public Health Strategies to Reduce Harmful Influences, Nicholas Freudenberg, Distinguished Professor of Public Health, City University of New York, New York, USA. View presentation

The Role of the Transnational Ultra-Processed Food Industry in the Pandemic of Obesity and its Associated Diseases: Problems and Solutions. Carlos Monteiro, Professor, Center for Epidemiological Studies in Health and Nutrition, University of Sao Paulo, Brazil. View presentation

What’s the Role for Advocacy and Campaigning Body? Aadeliah Maker Diedericks, Coordinator Southern Africa Alcohol Policy Alliance , Cape Town South Africa.  View presentation

A WHO Perspective on Commercial Influences on NCDs. Téa Collins, Adviser, Division of Noncommunicable Diseases and Health Promotion,  World Health Organization, Geneva, Switzerland, View a recent paper on commercial influences by Collins and colleagues.  Link to:

Reducing the impact of Trans-National Corporations on Non-communicable Disease: the Nutcracker Effect, Fran Baum, Matthew Flinders Distinguished Professor. Southgate Institute, College Medicine and Public Health, Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia. View Presentation

The moderator for the session was David Sanders, Emeritus Professor, School of Public Health, University of the Western Cape and co-founder People’s Health Movement.


The Corporatization of Marijuana: Marlboro maker in takeover talks with cannabis firm Cronos

Altria, the maker of Marlboro cigarettes, is in talks about a potential takeover of the Canadian cannabis producer Cronos as it seeks to diversify its business beyond traditional smokers, reports The GuardianCanada legalized recreational use of marijuana this year, and the country is seen as a testing ground for marijuana companies hoping to expand globally as other countries follow suit.  A deal would mark one of the largest combinations between mainstream tobacco and the booming but volatile marijuana sector, which has attracted interest from a variety of large consumer companies that are monitoring the industry for disruptive threats and faster-growing product possibilities.

Last year, the University of California -San Francisco Tobacco Control Policy Making: United States released a report by Rachel Barry and Stanton  Glantz titled  Lessons from Tobacco for Developing Marijuana Legalization Policy


New report expected to boost push to make company climate-risk disclosures mandatory

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The latest alarm bell to be rung on climate change — last Friday’s government report warning that the damage caused by the warming planet could shrink the U.S. economy by 10% by the end of the century — is expected to support the push for mandatory climate-risk disclosures among corporations, according to experts, writes MarketWatch, a business newsletter.

But much remains to be done to get companies to consistently make disclosures on how climate-change-related events, such as the recent deadly wildfires in California, are impacting business. ‘[W]e are looking at an economic crisis that, not unlike the subprime meltdown, will impact every sector of the economy and company within it”, says Mindy Lubber, chief executive of the sustainability-oriented nonprofit Ceres.  According to Lubber, the report differed from other climate studies in one respect: most climate research is science-based and tends to seek to generate a sense of urgency around time frames, public health and the future of the planet. “This one zeroed in on the economic impact, and that’s very important because we are looking at an economic crisis that, not unlike the subprime meltdown, will impact every sector of the economy and company within it,” she said.

In 2017, The Guardian reported that since 1988,  just 100 companies, mostly in the energy sector, were responsible for 71% of the world’s carbon emissions, suggesting that action by a limited number of corporations could yield significant reductions.

Systems Thinking as a Framework for Analyzing Commercial Determinants of Health

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The high burden of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) is politically salient and eminently preventable. However, effective solutions largely continue to elude the public health community. Two pressing issues heighten this challenge: the first is the public health community’s narrow approach to addressing NCDs, and the second is the involvement of corporate actors in policymaking. While NCDs are often conceptualized in terms of individual-level risk factors, the authors argue that they should be reframed as products of a complex system. This article explores the value of a systems approach to understanding NCDs as an emergent property of a complex system, with a focus on commercial actors.  Drawing on Donella Meadows’s systems thinking framework, this article examines how a systems perspective may be used to analyze the commercial determinants of NCDs and, specifically, how unhealthy commodity industries influence public health policy. The authors find that unhealthy commodity industries actively design and shape the NCD policy system, intervene at different levels of the system to gain agency over policy and politics, and legitimize their presence in public health policy decisions.

Citation: Knai C, Petticrew M, Mays N, Capewell S, Cassidy R, Cummins S, Eastmure E, Fafard P, Hawkins B, Jensen JD, Katikireddi SV. Systems Thinking as a Framework for Analyzing Commercial Determinants of Health.The Milbank Quarterly. 2018;96(3):472-98.

The 2020 Election: Putting Regulating Corporations to Protect Public Health on the Agenda

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The mixed results of the 2018 midterm elections open the season for the 2020 election.  In the coming months, Corporations and Health Watchwill raise some of the  issues that warrant discussion in this election. Today’s focus is on public health regulation of corporations.  Two recent reports provide a starting point for the national conversation that is needed.

4 Takeaways from the Trump-Era Plunge in Corporate Penalties

At a time when the Trump administration is loosening rules established in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, writes The New York Times,  financial penalties imposed on companies and big banks accused of wrongdoing have fallen precipitously since the Obama administration, according to analyses by The New York Times.

In consultation with outside experts, The Times conducted separate examinations of enforcement activity at the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Justice Department, comparing cases filed during the first 20 months of the Trump presidency with those in the final 20 months of the Obama administration.

The analysis found a 62 percent drop in penalties imposed and illicit profits ordered returned by the S.E.C. At the Justice Department, the analysis found a 72 percent decline in corporate penalties from criminal prosecutions, and a similar percent drop in certain civil penalties against financial institutions. Read the full story “Trump Administration Spares Corporate Wrongdoers Billions in Penalties.”

The War on Regulation: A Guide to the Ongoing Assault on Public Protections to Boost Corporate Profits

The war on regulation – carried out by the Trump administration, conservatives in Congress and private industry – is premised on a great deal of misinformation and misleading claims.  A recent report by the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards, a national alliance of more than 160 consumer, labor, scientific, research, public health and other groups, provides readers with what they  need to know to understand what’s at stake in the war on regulation and why regulatory safeguards matter. Read the full report.

2018 Lobbying and  Campaign Contributions from the Pharmaceutical and Food Industries

This week is Election Day and thanks to the Center for Responsive Politics  OpenSecrets.Org, the most comprehensive resource for federal campaign contributions, lobbying data and analysis available anywhere, voters can see what the Pharmaceutical/Health Care Products, Food and Beverages and other industries have spent on lobbying and campaigns contributions this election cycle and in the past.  The industries have already made their choices known in the 2018 midterm elections. Have you?

Total 2018 Lobbying Spending for Pharmaceuticals/Health Products Sector: $216,134, 421

Total Number of Clients Reported: 384

Total Number of Lobbyists Reported: 1,407

 2018 Campaign Contributions from this industry  $33.1 million 

 Pharmaceuticals/Health Products: Long-Term  Campaign Contribution Trends

Food and Beverages

Total  2018 Lobbying  Spending for Food & Beverage Sector: $22,393,837
Total Number of Clients Reported: 61
Total Number of Lobbyists Reported: 294                                                                                               Total Campaign Spending 2018:  $15 million

Food & Beverage: Long-Term Campaign Contribution Trends

The Influence of Industry Sponsorship on the Research Agenda: A Scoping Review

Corporate interests have the potential to influence public debate and policymaking by influencing the research agenda, namely the initial step in conducting research, in which the purpose of the study is defined and the questions are framed. In this scoping review, authors identified  and synthesized studies that explored the influence of industry sponsorship on research agendas across different fields.

The 36 articles reviewed included nineteen cross-sectional studies that quantitatively analyzed patterns in research topics by sponsorship and showed that industry tends to prioritize lines of inquiry that focus on products, processes, or activities that can be commercialized. Seven studies analyzed internal industry documents and provided insight on the strategies the industry used to reshape entire fields of research through the prioritization of topics that supported its policy and legal positions. Ten studies used surveys and interviews to explore the researchers’ experiences and perceptions of the influence of industry funding on research agendas, showing that they were generally aware of the risk that sponsorship could influence the choice of research priorities.

The authors concluded that corporate interests can drive research agendas away from questions that are the most relevant for public health. Strategies to counteract corporate influence on the research agenda are needed, including heightened disclosure of funding sources and conflicts of interest in published articles to allow an assessment of commercial biases. They also recommended policy actions beyond disclosure such as increasing funding for independent research and strict guidelines to regulate the interaction of research institutes with commercial entities. The results of the scoping review support the need to develop strategies to counteract corporate influence on the research agenda.

Citation: Fabbri A, Lai A, Grundy Q, Bero LA.The Influence of Industry Sponsorship on the Research Agenda: A Scoping Review. American journal of public health. 2018 Nov;108(11):e9-16.