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Belgium’s Deputy PM Unveils WHO Report on Commercial Influences in Health

A Call to Combat Corporate Power over Public Health

Brussels, BelgiumIn a significant stride towards addressing the commercial determinants of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), Belgium’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Social Affairs and Public Health, Frank Vandenbroucke, unveiled a groundbreaking report at a day-long event in Brussels.

The event, hosted in collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO) European Forum on Commercial Determinants of NCDs, brought together policymakers, health experts, and civil society representatives to discuss the pervasive influence of commercial industries on public health.

The newly launched report, titled ‘Commercial Determinants of Noncommunicable Diseases in the WHO European Region,’ highlights the extensive tactics employed by industries to maximize profits at the expense of public health.

It identifies the role of major commercial entities in exacerbating health inequalities and elevating the rates of NCDs such as cancer, cardiovascular diseases, chronic respiratory diseases, and diabetes.

The report calls for robust actions from governments, academia, and civil society to curb the disproportionate influence of these industries in the health policy sphere.

The Impact of Unhealthy Products: The Big Four

The report draws attention to four major corporate products—tobacco, ultra-processed foods (UPFs), fossil fuels, and alcohol—that are responsible for 19 million deaths annually worldwide, constituting 34% of all global deaths.

Within the European Region, these industries are linked to 2.7 million deaths each year. The report elucidates how the consolidation of these sectors into a handful of powerful transnational corporations has enabled them to wield significant influence over political and legal contexts, obstructing public interest regulations that could potentially harm their profit margins.

Dr. Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, underscored the gravity of the situation: “Four industries kill at least 7,000 people in our Region every day.

The same large commercial entities block regulation that would protect the public from harmful products and marketing and protect health policy from industry interference.

Industry tactics include exploitation of vulnerable people through targeted marketing strategies, misleading consumers, and making false claims about the benefits of their products or their environmental credentials.

These tactics threaten the public health gains of the past century and prevent countries from reaching their health targets. WHO/Europe will work with policymakers to strengthen tactics to protect against and reduce harmful industry influence.

Today, we provide indisputable evidence of harmful commercial practices and products, and we say that people must always take precedence before profit.”

Unveiling the Industry Playbook

The report provides an in-depth examination of how commercial actors across various sectors—including fossil fuel, tobacco, alcohol, food, and meat—engage in near-identical practices to shape structural, policy, and information environments.

Their primary goals are to generate profit, maximize product sales, and drive consumption. Even pharmaceutical and medical device industries partake in shaping public policy to favor their products and profits.

These industries allocate substantial resources to oppose public interest regulation, manipulate scientific evidence and public discourse, and externalize the costs of the harms they cause onto people and their environments, thereby increasing the burden of NCDs.

This ensemble of tactics, collectively referred to as the ‘industry playbook,’ is designed to influence entire systems—health, political, economic, and media—to serve their interests, leading to significant health and social harm.

To date, actions by individual governments and intergovernmental organizations have been insufficient to prevent or restrict these harmful commercial practices.

Deceptive Tactics and Case Studies

The report features a series of case studies that illustrate the breadth and depth of corporate capture of public policy and policymaking, impacting all areas of people’s lives.

It describes how ‘big industry’ employs both overt and covert methods to delay, deter, and block NCD policies, such as tobacco control measures and mandatory health and nutrition labeling for food and alcohol products.

Besides derailing health protection policies, the report documents some of industry’s harmful practices around disease management, such as the inequitable pricing and availability of cancer drugs and the promotion of non-evidence-based and unregulated screening tests.

Common ‘industry playbook’ strategies include political lobbying, spreading misinformation and disinformation in the media, harmful financial practices, and targeted marketing strategies directed at children and young people.

Failure to regulate industry’s harmful practices has allowed commercial power and influence to grow while public wealth and power have declined, perpetuating industry-driven health harms, especially the burden of NCDs, which accounts for 90% of deaths in Europe.

“We really have to re-think,” emphasized Minister Vandenbroucke. “For too long we have considered risk factors as being mostly linked to individual choices. We need to re-frame the problem as a systemic problem, where policy has to counter ‘hyper-consumption environments,’ restrict marketing, and stop interference in policymaking.”

“Our current efforts are still insufficient in regulating the harmful practices of commercial actors on health, and especially those of health-harming industries. I urge all newly elected European parliamentarians and policymakers to recognize the scale of this problem and the far-reaching impact that industry practices have on public health and indeed our democratic processes.”

A Call to Action for Member States

The report serves as a call to action for the 53 Member States in the European Region to address the major threat of NCDs by tackling commercial influence at all levels—individual, environment, public policy, and political-economic systems—and enforcing stronger regulations in various areas, including:

  • Marketing of health-harming products
  • Monopolistic practices
  • Transparency, lobbying, funding, and conflicts of interest
  • Taxation of multinational corporations
  • Job security and labor conditions
  • Exploitation of vulnerable populations during crises
  • Funding and support for civil society organizations to ensure their independence

Furthermore, the report recommends prioritizing public health in trade agreements and advocating for stronger health-oriented interpretations of economic laws to ensure that public health does not continue to lose out to narrow, outdated economic measures.

Success Stories and Ongoing Challenges

Despite strong industry opposition, some countries have achieved successes in regulating harmful commercial practices. In Estonia, a coalition of health partners, including dentists, nurses, and physicians, advanced legislation for taxation on sugar-sweetened beverages.

In the Kyrgyz Republic, women’s councils played a crucial advocacy role in adopting tobacco control measures. National and international mobilization of civil society organizations helped ensure the passage of tobacco legislation in Slovenia.

However, much more needs to be done to help policymakers and public interest groups counter the power, resources, and lobbying of industry.

Speaking at the launch of the report, Dr. Gauden Galea, WHO/Europe Regional Strategic Advisor on Noncommunicable Diseases and Innovation, remarked, “The insidious practices of powerful industries did not appear overnight, and they will not go away easily.”

“This is a long-term effort that requires political will, first and foremost. We clearly see how big industry behavior adversely affects public health and creates unnecessary sickness and suffering.”

“The range of case studies in our report shows the scale of industry interference happening now in our Region, and that our current mechanisms to prevent NCDs are entirely unfit for purpose. Countries must report on their progress at the UN High Level Meeting on NCDs in September 2025 and the clock is ticking.”

“It will require all our efforts—Member States, civil society, academia, and international organizations—to shield public policy and protect future generations from preventable chronic diseases.”

Looking Ahead

The launch of this report marks a pivotal moment in the battle against NCDs and the commercial determinants that drive them. By exposing the tactics used by powerful industries and highlighting the need for systemic change, the WHO and its partners are setting the stage for a more equitable and health-focused future.

The report’s call to action is clear: combating the influence of harmful industries is not just a public health necessity but a moral imperative to safeguard the well-being of current and future generations.

As the world moves towards the UN High Level Meeting on NCDs in 2025, the momentum generated by this report will be crucial in driving policy changes and fostering collaboration across sectors.

The road ahead is challenging, but with concerted effort and unwavering political will, significant progress can be made in reducing the burden of NCDs and protecting public health from the pervasive influence of commercial interests.

The time to act is now, and the message from Brussels is resounding: health must come before profit, always.

 

This article was created using automation technology and was thoroughly edited and fact-checked by one of our editorial staff members

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