October 8, 2020, By Jordan Kelly-Linden, s

Major producers of unhealthy food and drink used the pandemic to promote their products at the expense of public health, the report claims.

A new report has exposed the sinister ways in which leading unhealthy food and drink brands have exploited the coronavirus crisis to further corporate interests at the expense of public health.

Since the start of the pandemic hundreds of examples have emerged of ultra-processed food and drink companies trying to curry favour with consumers under the guise of philanthropic donations.

Some transnational corporations have even used the crisis as a way to boost partnerships with governments and increase brand loyalty within desperate communities, the report claims.

The paper, which was published by the NCD Alliance and Spectrum on Thursday, reveals how companies across the world employed various marketing stunts to champion unhealthy products as part of the solution to the ongoing public health emergency, despite their known role in exacerbating poor health outcomes.

One example referenced in the report saw fast food company Burger King evoke patriotism in the US and gamify government stay at home orders by awarding give-away products to those who caught a QR-code moving around TV screens.

In Mexico, Nestle, FEMSA (the giant Coca Cola bottling group) and YSA Pharmacies breached the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes by offering to ‘gift’ additional formula to vulnerable families for every can of infant or toddler milk purchased.

Closer to home, international donut company Krispy Kreme leveraged Covid-19 in a marketing campaign purportedly ‘serving smiles’, which offered 1,500 free donuts to healthcare and other frontline workers at the Royal Free Hospital in London.

“Since the early days of the pandemic, we have observed two trends: the growing epidemiological evidence that people living with noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) are suffering worse outcomes from Covid-19, and that many producers of unhealthy commodities have rapidly adapted their strategies in an attempt to capitalise on the pandemic and lockdowns,” said Lucy Westerman, Policy and Campaigns Manager with the NCD Alliance and a co-author of the report.

“It is a bitter irony that companies such as tobacco, alcohol and junk food, whose products increase the risk of NCDs, thereby putting people at higher risk of suffering through the pandemic, have positioned themselves as heroes and partners in the response and have interfered in public policies that seek to protect population health.”

NCDs such as obesity, hypertension and diabetes, which can be exacerbated by unhealthy diets and excessive alcohol consumption, are responsible for more than 41 million early deaths each year.

Since the coronavirus pandemic first emerged obesity and accompanying conditions such as diabetes have also been recognised as a major risk factor for contracting a more severe form of the infection.

Last week the NCD Alliance published another study in the Lancet warning that progress in fighting such diseases has massively stalled and stated that the UN and WHO targets to reduce premature deaths from NCDs will be widely missed by 2030.

“Governments already know very well how to reduce the risk of NCDs,” Katie Dain, CEO of the NCD Alliance, said. “There is a well-documented history of unhealthy commodity industries infiltrating public health organisations, subverting science, and interfering with and undermining public policies.

“Pre-Covid-19 this is something which has been charted and monitored extensively, and it has been a major barrier to progress on NCDs.”

Alongside companies promoting unhealthy eating and drinking habits, the report also highlighted corporations who sought to use large philanthropic donations as a means to secure legitimacy and political capital.

Having received widespread criticism from NGOs for its refusal to contemplate abandoning single-use plastics at the World Economic Forum 2020, the largest bottler of Coca-Cola in the United States has partnered with the US Department of Health and Human Services to manufacture plastic tubes for use in Covid-19 testing kits.

The Coca-Cola Company described this initiative as “utilizing existing soda bottle preforms to produce more than 7 million tubes each week”, which featured as a prominent item on the Coca-Cola website as one of the “new solutions” developed to support local communities.

Meanwhile in Kenya, the Government chose to include tobacco, alcohol and processed food and beverages on their official list of essential items and services, describing such products as “essential to the sustenance of lives and efforts” and granting manufacturers special protection to continue the production and movement of these products during lockdown.

The special status of tobacco and alcohol was opposed by local civil society groups, who warned of the growing risk posed by non-communicable diseases and urged the government “not to replace one pandemic with another.”

However, the report points to internal factors which might have influenced this decision.

An emergency coronavirus fund launched by President Kenyatta has received significant donations from Kenya Breweries and BAT Kenya, the country’s largest cigarette manufacturer.

The situation in these countries is far from unique. Throughout the pandemic international organisations have placed substantial emphasis on leveraging resources and partnerships with the private sector to aid efforts to support the international Covid-19 response.

One such example includes the creation of the WHO’s Covid-19 Solidarity Response Fund in April.

While its due diligence processes prohibit funding from alcohol, arms, and tobacco industries, this has provided opportunities for ultra-processed food and drink manufacturers to signal active engagement in the global response.

Both Pepsico, the Mondelez International Foundation, the charitable arm of the sweets company which owns Cadbury, and the Starbucks Foundation are all listed among the Fund’s supporters.

The widespread involvement of producers of unhealthy commodities in public health efforts, while initially helpful, sets a dangerous precedent, suggested Linda Bauld, Director of the SPECTRUM research consortium.

“The Covid-19 pandemic is ongoing around the world and this report should be seen as just the tip of the iceberg,” she said.

“It is abundantly clear that unhealthy commodity industries will continue to adapt their engagement with Covid-19 as the pandemic, policy responses and economic crises evolve. Mapping this activity is vital if we are to shape a fine-tuned response to Covid-19 and at the same time avoid further exacerbating the pre-existing NCD epidemic.”

Feature Image: NCDs such as obesity, hypertension and diabetes, which can be exacerbated by unhealthy diets and excessive alcohol consumption, are responsible for more than 41 million early deaths each year

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