Biggest global health risk

June 22, 2024 

What do you think is the leading risk factor for disease and death across the globe?

Is it electromagnetic pollution?

Is it chemicals?

Is it fossil fuels?

No, says Dr Nicholas Chartres, a researcher from The University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and The University of Sydney. He says: the leading risk factor for disease and death globally is … big business!

In an interview with Lyn McLean, Dr Chartres explains how corporations are systematically applying strategies that enhance their shareholder’s profits, but at the expense of public health.

‘There’s a shared set of tactics and strategies by various corporations across the different industries that has made them the major risk factors for disease,’ Chartres says.

He explains that we know this because UCSF has accumulated millions of internal company documents, many of them made public through litigation, showing the specific strategies that a range of corporations use to hide the harms of the unhealthy products they produce to keep them on the market, and free of regulation.

Who are they?

Chartres says, ‘We know that only four products make up around 40% of the 56 million total deaths globally: tobacco, alcohol, ultra-processed foods (UPFs) and fossil fuels – and also pollution from all sources of (including chemical exposures), – [and] are the singular leading cause for premature death. So, these four or five exposures or products are now the main drivers of disease globally. It’s no longer communicable diseases [caused by organisms and viruses] we were once exposed to.’

And here is how they do it.

1. They undermine science about a product.

Chartres says the first strategy for doing this is to capture scientific knowledge.

  • Companies do this by conducing lots of research that is favourable to industry, thus biasing the science in favour of a product. ‘We’ve now shown – whether it’s the pharmaceutical industry, tobacco, nutrition, chemicals, EMFs, mobile phones – when industry funds research, they’re more likely to get statistically-significant results in the direction of their product,’ Chartres says. For example, research on drugs is likely to show greater efficacy, while research on chemicals is likely to show less harm,

  • Next, the corporations disseminate this information to the scientific community by funding symposiums, paying opinion leaders (such as key scientists) and establishing their own academic journals.

  • Thirdly, they suppress unfavourable science. This is particularly true of the fossil fuel industry, which knew about the dangers of greenhouse gases for the environment in the 1960s but didn’t acknowledge it until the 1980s and set about a campaign to dispute the science on climate change and block fossil fuel controls. While, a recent investigation using the UCSF Industry Documents Library has uncovered how the largest manufacturers of PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), DuPont (makers of Teflon) and 3M (makers of Scotchgard) delayed public awareness of PFAS toxicity for decades and, in turn, delayed regulations governing their use.

2. They influence government regulation

Chartres says another strategy these corporations use is to ‘capture policy and regulatory process to undermine the ability for us to regulate them.’

How do they do that?

This needs to change, Chartres says. ‘These government agencies and scientific committees must be enforcing very, very strict conflict of interest policies whereby people that have worked or been funded by industry within the last five years can’t hold positions where you’re making determinations around the safety or efficacy of an exposure’.

3. They shape public opinion

Corporations have the funds to shape public opinion and market effectively, for example, by:

Chartres says, we need to take action to restrict the advertising of these products. ‘If we know that industries have intentionally developed strategies to get consumers hooked on them, then I think there’s a reason to act and a need to act. There’s evidence across all those industries (UPFs, alcohol, gambling, tobacco) I mentioned that they have done this and the impact from restricting tobacco advertising on smoking cessation rates has demonstrated what a powerful lever it can be.

This is an issue that anyone interested in health needs to know about.

Dr Chartres shares with us important information about these and other aspects of this topic such as:

  • how industry influences the outcome of studies

  • how governments could be – but aren’t – analysing research for industry bias

  • the systematic exploitation of vulnerable, often lower socio-economic, populations

  • how lower socio-economic populations are bearing the brunt of the global disease burden

  • how corporations engage children to promote their products.

You can see Lyn McLean’s interview with Dr Chartres here and look out for our follow-up interview with Dr Chartres about potential solutions next week.

Product of the week

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What else can you do?

  • Looking for answers? Book a phone consultation to discuss your concerns & solutions here.

  • Download your free copy of our July issue of EMR and Health here.

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