Big companies that produce and sell unhealthy products such as tobacco, alcohol and foods and drinks high in salt, sugar and fat have significant impacts on our health. Selling unhealthy products is often highly profitable and companies have a responsibility towards their shareholders to make profit and sell more goods, regardless of whether it has a negative effect on the health of the people buying them. Therefore, there is a conflict between the interests of companies that produce harmful products and the things that we try to do in public health to reduce the illnesses that are caused by consuming too many unhealthy things (e.g. obesity or diabetes). The practices of large companies that attempt to influence public opinion and health policy in favour of industry have been widely documented. These practices include lobbying, marketing, shaping preferences and direct participation in policy planning and delivery. Company’s revenue, employment opportunities, and scientific and technical expertise provide them with a powerful voice in influencing public perceptions and decision making.
These companies also want to improve their reputation and one way they achieve this is by showing that they are concerned about health, social and environmental issues. To demonstrate this, they produce documents called ‘social corporate responsibility’ strategies. The mismatch between companies’ harmful products and their corporate social responsibilities activities has led to controversy and debate. When such companies interact with public sector organisations, there is significant potential for conflicts of interest (e.g. when a company sponsors a public sector activity). The nature and extent of such interactions between companies that produce unhealthy products and local authorities have not been studied in detail previously.
The aim of this project is to better understand the nature and extent of interactions between companies that produce unhealthy products and local government. Our study is divided into four work packages. We will:
(1) carry out a review of existing evidence and develop an understanding of the types of interactions between companies that produce unhealthy products and local government;
(2) obtain data from all local authorities in England and provide an overview of local authority interactions with companies that produce unhealthy products (patterns, nature, extent);
(3) conduct interviews to explore the views of council officers, decision-makers, professionals and the public on local interactions with commercial companies, their influence on business plans and community activities, and their views on the need for guidance on local government interactions with companies that produce unhealthy products;
(4) develop a summary of principles to inform local decision-making on approaches to interacting with companies that produce unhealthy products.
Sarah McKevitt, Martin White, Mark Petticrew et al. Characterizing restrictions on commercial advertising and sponsorship of harmful commodities in local government policies: a nationwide study in England. Journal of Public Health, 2023;, fdad155, https://doi.org/10.1093/pubmed/fdad155