Thursday 10 September 2020

Thank you, unhealthy commodity industries!

Last year, I wrote about SPECTRUM, one of the latest nanny state sockpuppets to be funded by the unwitting taxpayer. Given £5.9 million and a ludicrous acronym (it stands for Shaping Public hEalth poliCies To Reduce ineqUalities and harM - I'm not kidding), SPECTRUM promised to focus on 'the commercial determinants of health and health inequalities, considering alcohol, tobacco and unhealthy food'. It is a crony organisation and its list of 'co-investigators' is a Who's Who of the British 'public health' racket.

There has been a lot of water under the bridge since then. A genuine public health issue has emerged and the 'public health' establishment has been shown to be useless. Public Health England has been closed down but SPECTRUM's work - such as it is - goes on.

Its latest report is titled 'Signalling Virtue, Promoting Harm' and you could not ask for a more perfect illustration of the moral rot at the heart of the modern 'public health' movement. The authors have scoured the world for  examples of 'unhealthy commodity industries' doing good deeds during the pandemic and portray these charitable acts as evil because, er, reasons.

Most of the report could have been written by a PR agency on behalf of the industries involved. The authors simply catalogue donations and assistance from businesses that have made a practical difference to people's lives at a difficult time. They are so deep down the rabbit hole that they assume the reader will disapprove just because the business sells an 'unhealthy commodity' like, er, food or baby milk.

Here's a typical example:

In resource-poor settings, the COVID-19 pandemic provided an opportunity for unhealthy commodity industries to present themselves as providing essential support to underfunded public services. In Guatemala, McDonald’s delivered meals to health staff at a COVID-19 hospital, while Am Bev made a sizeable donation towards hospital equipment. The local distributor of PepsiCo –cbc– donated facemasks to Guatemalan customs officials and police. 

The swine!

If the report serves any useful purpose, it is to inform people about how much charitable work businesses have been doing during the pandemic. I didn't realise there was so much of it. For example...

AB InBev have committed to distribute 1.4 million litres of potable water to 240,000 people in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro communities, as part of its ‘COVID-19 response for the people of Brazil’.

In Bolivia, the Coca-Cola Foundation donated $299,153 via UNDP to provide assistance to healthcare workers and vulnerable populations.

As part of its Give Meals, Give Hope project PepsiCo India and the PepsiCo Foundation have supported the WHO Collaborating Centre Foundation for innovative New Diagnostics (FIND) to procure and distribute 25,000 COVID-19 test kits in coordination with the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

They even give examples of medical staff explicitly thanking companies for their donations, but still we are supposed to disapprove.

Heineken Russia donated meals together with its energy drink – Solar Power – for doctors and nurses on night shift, while Red Bull Australia were thanked on social media by Lifeline Adelaide for the ‘surprise delivery [of energy drinks] to help keep our Crisis Supporters energised as they answer calls for support’.

The international donut company Krispy Kreme similarly leveraged COVID-19 in a marketing campaign purportedly ‘serving smiles’ by offering free donuts to healthcare and other frontline workers in New Zealand, the US and the UK. Staff at the Royal Free Hospital in London posted a thank you message on social media to which Krispy Kreme responded, citing #NHSheroes and suggesting the brand was responsible for #creatingsmiles and #servingsmiles. 

While those on the front line were happy to get a free donut, the zealots behind this report - most of whom are comfortably tenured at Edinburgh University - know better.

The leading transnational tobacco company Philip Morris International (PMI) donated 50 ventilators through its Greek subsidiary, Papastatos, to Intensive Care Units in Greece. Despite strong criticism of this “shameful publicity stunt”, the Health Minister Vassilis Kikilias thanked Papastratos for “its significant contribution to strengthening the national health system”. This attempt by PMI to subvert Article 5.3 of the FCTC, which requires Parties to denormalise tobacco industry philanthropy, is also evident in Germany where the Berlin Senate Department for Health accepted an offer to use the Philip Morris GmbH Neukölln production site as a temporary distribution and logistics center for PPE.

Good on them. It seems that SPECTRUM would rather COVID-19 victims went without ventilators than have them supplied by businesses of whom they disapprove. When dogma conflicts with saving lives, the 'public health' racket is always happy to side with the virus. (Incidentally, Article 5.3 does not say what the authors claim it says.)

At least cigarettes are a genuinely 'unhealthy commodity'. The same cannot be said of some of the authors' other targets.

Kraft Heinz Canada is similarly promoting its partnership with Food Banks Canada, via which it is reportedly providing 1 million meals to Canadians in need. This collaboration centres on Kraft Heinz Project Pantry, with the accompanying twitter campaign indicating that such meals include ultra-processed products such as Kraft Dinner macaroni cheese and peanut butter.

Oh God! Not macaroni cheese and peanut butter. Anything but that!

In similar vein, the distributors of Indomie Instant Noodles, Tolaram Group donated GHS1 million and a package of their products to the COVID-19 National Trust Fun, with their products being directed to vulnerable households during lockdown in support of the government’s food assistance program.

Noodles! The world's biggest killer!

As part of its Give Meals, Give Hope project PepsiCo India and the PepsiCo Foundation have supported the WHO Collaborating Centre Foundation for innovative New Diagnostics (FIND) to procure and distribute 25,000 COVID-19 test kits in coordination with the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. A press release from FIND welcomed this initiative from PepsiCo India “to support the scale up of India’s COVID-19 testing capacity” with the Head of Country Operations, Sanjay Sarin, describing the initiative as “critical” to scale up COVID-19 testing capacity. In Paraguay, Coca Cola donated personal protective equipment to the National Institute of Respiratory Diseases, including 22,000 surgical masks, 5,000 N95 respirators, and 2,000 surgical gowns. The Ministry of Health described Coca Cola Paraguay as having a “desire to contribute to the strengthening of the health system and support the efforts of the National Government”. In Colombia, AB InBev have donated 30,000 protective face shields using recycled PET bottles, and South African Breweries (SAB) claims to have donated 100,000 face shields made from recycled beer crates to a sub-national health department.

While reading this stuff, you have keep reminding yourself that the authors think it is bad. Why do they think this?

The seemingly philanthropic work of alcohol companies in providing financial support and PPE to the hospitality sector is better viewed as lobbying and advocacy...

But it isn't though, is it? This is the Humpty Dumpty school of academia ("When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean").

This pattern of strategic consistency by unhealthy commodity industries in utilising the context of COVID-19 to advance long established goals, signalling virtue by visibly contributing to relief efforts while continuing to promote products and practices that harm health and fuel the NCD epidemic, is echoed in reports into corporate behaviours across other sectors.

Virtue signalling is expressing empathy and concern without doing anything about it. This is the opposite. Almost everything listed in the report - and I have quoted only a fraction of it - involved businesses bearing a cost and providing a tangible benefit. Whether they converted their factories to making hand sanitiser or made donations to hospitals or provided ventilators and PPE, they made a valuable contribution. Some of it undoubtedly saved lives.

And what contribution has the alleged public health organisation SPECTRUM made? None whatsoever, although it has wangled another £500,000 to do research on COVID-19 and the licensed trade (spoiler alert: it will conclude that closing pubs and nightclubs was a jolly good thing).

"What did you do when you worked in public health during the pandemic, mummy?"

"I wrote a crummy report criticising businesses for donating money and hospital equipment, son."

To state the obvious, taxpayers should not be paying for any of this garbage.

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