You can’t trust anyone these days, as no eagle-eyed WDDTY reader needs reminding. We need to treat the advisory guidance we get from our health authorities with more than an ounce of skepticism—yes, even guidance from that most august agency of them all, the World Health Organization (WHO).
Depending on where you’ve been sitting over the recent Covid epidemic, you may conclude either that the WHO played a reasonable game in advising on the best measures to protect us or that its advice was partial and hysterical.
A new report has discovered that the more skeptical of you are top of the class: the WHO’s guidelines are influenced—or, more exactly, dictated—by vast commercial interests. Former President Trump got a whiff of this and stopped US funding of the agency, but probably not for those reasons.
President Biden has reversed Trump’s ruling and has restored US funding of the WHO—but with qualifiers. Biden has history with the WHO. Back when he was a senator in the Clinton administration, he advocated for funding of the WHO and the United Nations, provided they “reformed.”
The reformation Biden had in mind was to give greater leverage to industry to reshape public health policy. In restoring funding post-Trump, Biden—himself a grateful recipient of Big Pharma and Big Food’s largesse down the years—has again doubled down on the need for “reforms.”
The intervention is working. Faced with enormous lobbying pressures from industrial conglomerates, the WHO has been pulling its punches across a range of issues that impact our health, as researchers from the University of California at Davis have discovered.1
The agency has gone silent of late on a range of issues, from advocating breastfeeding over infant formula to reducing our sugar intake, when once it was shouting the messages from the rooftops. These proclamations were targeted by industry because they were bad for business—heck, we need to sell more formula and sugar-sweetened snacks and fast foods, after all.
The tobacco industry has also gotten in on the act. Although its products are indefensible, it has been engaging in some arm’s-length lobbying and advocating a 25 percent cut in WHO funding if it doesn’t support industry’s bottom line. We guess the overarching philosophy behind Big Tobacco’s interest in our well-being is the thesis that after folk have overloaded on sugar-laden food, they want to sneak out the back door for a quick puff.
Although lobbying has been a feature of politics and policy since the Reagan administration opened the floodgates in the 1980s, the practice has taken a sinister turn of late, the researchers note. It’s become more coordinated, as if a worldview of consumerism at the expense of public health has become the voice of our times, and one that is being supported by the WHO and other health agencies around the world.
And in case this all sounds like a pro-Trump and anti-Biden rant, it ain’t. As Katheryn Russ, professor of economics at UC Davis and the study’s lead author, said, “It’s not about any one party or administration. This intensifying corporate lobbying over US positions on global health is problematic because it elevates commercial interests in processes shaping global health objectives. These corporate entities have vast, concentrated pools of private wealth to draw on that public-interest groups lobbying for health policy cannot match.”
It may be more than problematic. People believe the stuff they’re told, especially by respected authorities such as the WHO. A recent poll of Britons discovered that belief in “the science” is at an all-time high after the Covid pandemic. The science was seen as a trusted companion throughout Covid, and it was the science that delivered the vaccines that set us free, or so the official narrative has it.
But those who understand science and its constant testing of the “knowns” acknowledge that what was peddled throughout the pandemic was anything but science. Instead it was dogmatism camouflaging commercial interests and academic reputations.
The more discerning of us in the West may be able to see through the propaganda—and, more significantly, we have the choice to buy healthier options—but it’s a life-and-death issue in developing countries. Their struggles with diabetes, heart disease and cancer are mounting, and fast foods are becoming the food of choice.
And now they can’t turn to the WHO, or to other health agencies, come to that, for independent advice that would emphasize health over fast foods, cigarettes and drugs that don’t work.
Global Health Governance, Spring 2022; 17(1): 37–69