World Health Organization Mentions Channel One’s Role In Obesity Crisis

January 29, 2003

War is breaking out over junk food and sugary drinks. The World Health Organisation says they are making children obese, and governments should clamp down on them. The hugely powerful multinationals involved say that’s rubbish.

Sarah Boseley investigates

Thursday January 9, 2003
The Guardian

There was a time when children drank water or milk. That has gone as surely as short trousers for schoolboys and the rag and bone man’s horse and cart. Wherever today’s kids hang out – be it in fast-food restaurants, in cinemas, at home or at school – they are swigging cola and cans of fruit-flavoured fizz. Last year, more than 200 litres of the stuff bubbled down each of their gullets. And they are getting alarmingly fat. Could these facts be connected?

It is a suggestion that makes the soft drinks industry (UK sales £8.6bn in 2001) incandescent with rage, but the Geneva-based World Health Organisation (WHO) has for the first time nailed it to the agenda in a groundbreaking draft report on obesity and nutrition. The report urges governments to clamp down on TV ads pushing “sugar-rich items” to impressionable thirsty youngsters and consider slapping heavier taxes on them. It suggests that school vending machines should be turned into scrap metal.

This is all-out war. The WHO, concerned about the rising tide of obesity that is killing and debilitating millions in rich countries such as the UK and US and that is now edging into poor countries to co-exist obscenely with malnutrition, means business. The soft drinks industry, appalled at this interference with its global dominance, disputes not only the scientific evidence but the WHO’s right even to raise issues of taxes and advertising. For many years, the food industry has fought a largely successful battle to have us believe that couch potato culture is a bigger villain even than high-fat chips, burgers and chocolate bars in the increasingly porcine appearance of British youth. Children have been denied school playing fields and corralled in front of the TV, they argue. They have exchanged running in the streets for passive internet roaming.

But the WHO has now marched in where nanny once feared to tread, insisting that slothfulness is not all, and asserting that food and drink is an issue of public health – not just a matter for consumer choice. In naming and shaming sugar as well as fat, it is taking on corporations with more wealth, power and global reach than many small nations. The industry has gone ballistic.

“We are going to see the most astonishing public fight,” says Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University. “It is going to be straightforward war.” For years, he says, industry has been successfully lobbying and operating behind the scenes to prevent the sort of confrontation that is now taking place. But the stratospheric surge in obesity, its first cousin diabetes and other nutrition-related diseases has spurred the WHO to act. “If the WHO had not taken this on it would have been derelict in its duties,” says Professor Lang. “It is taking on people who have fought for 20-30 years denying the evidence about the impact of diet on degenerative diseases and food-related cancers. They have argued this is a nonsense. They have hired rent-a-professors and argued that it wasn’t true. They have gone down the lobbying route. They have gone down, above all, an ideological route, arguing that there are problems, but they are down to an individual’s mis-consumption.”

First strike has come from the United States, where big business and the Bush administration meld indistinguishably into one and where, in 1997, Americans spent more than $54bn (£34bn) on 14 billion gallons of soft drink. Babies are weaned on to soda pop – a fifth of one- and two-year-olds drink a cup a day. The average teenage boy quaffs 19 ounces daily – more than a can and a half. Some 12% of boys and 11% of girls are obese. In the past 20 years, obesity levels in adolescents have tripled.

The US government registered a formal objection to the WHO draft report, arguing that it had not proved its case. It said the report found “insufficient evidence to conclude a causal link between soft drinks consumption and weight gain exists” and demanded that the offending words be “deleted or significantly revised”.

This is curious, because – as Congressman Henry Waxman pointed out – the review which led the WHO to its conclusion was co-authored by William Dietz, director of the division of nutrition and physical activity of the Centres For Disease Control and the US government’s leading obesity expert. Both Dr Dietz and the US surgeon general have praised schools that ban soft drink machines – as has happened across Los Angeles county.

The US government’s response – and its lobbying of EU governments to share its stance – is a powerful shot across the WHO bows. But what many campaigners fear is not so much the public fracas as the subtler powerplay of covert influence behind the scenes. The UN agencies, which have to listen to opinion from every quarter, are wide open to infiltration and manipulation. It happened when the WHO took on the tobacco industry. An unpublished report obtained by the Guardian suggests it has been happening with the food industry too.

The report was compiled by a retired American public health academic called Norbert Hirschhorn who has written tomes on the secrets of the tobacco industry after delving into the archives set up during the litigation in the US. Those archives provided comprehensive evidence for a report to the WHO director-general Gro Harlem Brundtland in July 2000 that the tobacco companies had succeeded in infiltrating the WHO and were exerting “undue influence” over its policies on cigarettes. Professor Hirschhorn sought to discover whether similar tactics had been employed by sectors of the food industry owned by or linked to tobacco.

His unpublished report, dated June 19 last year, finds “that ‘undue influence’ has indeed been exerted by the tobacco industry, its food subsidiaries and allies” on food and nutrition policies. The tactics, he says, were to position the industry’s own toxicologists and other experts on WHO and FAO (Food And Agricultural Organisation) committees and to fund and support non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which would put forward their views. Funds were channelled through food companies to research and policy groups sympathetic to industry. Libertarian think-tanks and writers who would denounce over-regulation and champion individual choice were given financial support.

Hirschhorn pays particular attention to an organisation called the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) which was founded in 1978 by Coca-Cola, Pepsi Cola, General Foods, Kraft (owned by Philip Morris tobacco) and Procter&Gamble. Until 1991, it was led by Coca-Cola vice-president Alex Malaspina, who negotiated for ILSI a position as an NGO “in official relations” with the WHO and a specialised consultative status with the FAO. The environmental sciences division of ILSI worked closely with the tobacco industry. The report states that after the FAO/WHO issued guidelines on nutrition in 1992, ILSI members congratulated themselves on steering the UN organisations away from any curbs on sugar consumption, in line with the position of the food industry.

From the conference rooms of Geneva to the corridors of a British school near you, games of power and influence are being played out over what we eat and drink. Commercial interests are trying to influence both policy makers and pupils, with varying degrees of subtlety. Vending machines sell Coke and Tango, crisps and sweets in schools – a quick sugar fix for hungry kids and cash for the head to buy more books. Food companies sponsor educational worksheets and information booklets. Walker’s salt and fat-heavy crisps offer “books for schools” vouchers and NestlÈ promises money for schools that collect packet tops from sugar-loaded cereals.

The food commission, which campaigns against these promotions, the majority of British children consume more fat, sugar and salt than is recommended for an adult, and around 9% of boys and 13.5% of girls in England are overweight. In 10 years, from 1984 to 1994, obesity in primary schoolchildren went up by 140%.

Look where consumer choice has taken the US, says the public health lobby. Every day 5.7m children tune in to Channel 1 in school to watch a 12-minute educational programme that contains two minutes of advertising for soda pop, sweets and snack food. The deal is that the school gets a loaned TV. The advertisers get sitting ducks. The 30-second ad slots are so sought after, according to Gary Ruskin of the Ralph Nader organisation Commercial Alert, that a couple of years ago they were selling for $195,000 (£122,000). “From the public health perspective, the battle is to kick Channel 1 and Coke and Pepsi out of the schools,” he says.

“Even if you grant that Channel 1 does an occasional good spot, it is not worth turning schools into hustlers for junk food. Some things should not be for sale. Parents here are increasingly alarmed over the rise of marketing-related diseases.” These include, he says, obesity, diabetes, alcoholism, anorexia, bulimia and smoking-related illnesses.

We are not there yet in the UK. Nor do we have teachers who are paid to “wrap” their car in an advert for junk food and drive it to school every day. But where the US leads we are never far behind. Our obesity trends tell that story. And the invitations to your child to consume more and more fat and sugar are all around – witness the free toys with each burger meal and commercial tie-ups such as the Coca-Cola/ Harry Potter deal. The plastic siren voices are calling to your children in the street, in food outlets and on the TV.

Joe Harvey, director of the Health Education Trust which runs the Schools Nutrition Action Group, thinks our schools are not well-equipped to deal with the seductions offered by the food and drink industry and that parents need help. “It is, I would have thought, something that the government should take on,” he says. “It’s absolute rubbish to say that television ads don’t impact on children. It’s an onslaught. Look at the advertising on Saturday morning. Tell me is there any balance in that?” Where are the fruit and vegetable ads, he asks. “We’re not doing our kids or the health of the nation any good to leave things as they are.”

The British Soft Drinks Association could not agree less. Richard Laming, public affairs manager, says advertising is good for children. “Children have to grow up in the world as it is and the world has advertising in it. The research shows they know the difference between advertising and TV programmes. Where it is prohibited, the quality of children’s TV declines because the programme makers can’t justify spending so much money. So the overall impact is to harm children, not to protect them, because it reduces the quality of children’s television.”

The association, which represents the major soft drinks players in the UK (No 1 is Coca Cola, No 2 is Britvic which makes Pepsi in the UK, with the rest trailing), also does not agree with the WHO take on nutrition, sugar and corpulence. “The problem is sedentary lifestyles and diet hasn’t caught up – the crucial thing is to encourage more active lifestyles,” says Laming.

In spite of this apparent stone wall, Derek Yach, head of non-communicable diseases for the WHO, which includes both obesity and tobacco, says he is optimistic. “The interaction with the industry is extremely dynamic,” he says. The response at first was hostile, but “we have started talking to all the major multinational companies involved and we believe there is a serious spirit of trying to work with WHO. It is still very early days, but I would anticipate that what we are going to see is stronger competition among the companies to try to use health as an added lever to sell their products.

“Many of the companies recognise, for instance, that the level of saturated fats in fast-food restaurants could be reduced further.” But the cost is taste and price, he acknowledges. It was the need to cut fat that has led to the sugar problems. “Many foods that were high-fat are now low-fat in response to our calls to lower cholesterol. Companies replaced the taste in the mouth with high levels of sugar. Now we’re having to deal with sugar.”

Perhaps more likely than anything else to concentrate food industry minds is the spectre in the US of the courts. Two teenage boys have just filed a suit blaming McDonald’s for their obesity. Most observers doubt whether they can win, but the industry does not want another McLibel. They do not want the massive disclosure of internal company documents concerning food, health, power and influence.

It may seem unlikely, in a war between billion dollar corporations on one side and underfunded international public health officials on the other, but the next decade could yet become the era of salads and bottled water.

(Thanks to Ken McNatt.)

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