News / South Africa / Health

Simnikiwe Hlatshaneni
Premium Journalist
2 minute read
17 Nov 2020
11:50 am

How food and tobacco giants used Covid-19 to exploit the poor

Simnikiwe Hlatshaneni

Food and beverage corporations including Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Nestlé and PepsiCo apparently used the spread of the coronavirus to promote their ultra-processed foods.

Man pours a fizzy drink. Picture: iStock

Two global reports have linked big brands to exploitative practices in the food and tobacco industries, preying on the most vulnerable to the Covid-19 pandemic.

This as the aftermath of the international health crisis has led to a spike in deaths linked to non-communicable diseases, including diabetes and obesity.

In one report by the Global Health Advocacy Incubator (GHAI), big-brand corporations were found to have contributed to malnutrition and other health issues in vulnerable countries by promoting unhealthy products during a global health crisis.

Food and beverage corporations including Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Nestlé and PepsiCo apparently used the spread of the coronavirus to promote their ultra-processed foods. This was especially evident, it claimed, in vulnerable populations around the world.

The group also accused corporations of indirectly influencing policy and putting disadvantaged people at even greater risk. The report looked at the activities of multinationals, using 280 examples from 18 countries between March and July 2020. In one example it used from South Africa, Coca-Cola collaborated with a nonprofit to donate fizzy drinks to local healthcare centres, including an obesity care centre.

“Based on the examples we gathered, it quickly became clear that ‘Big Food’ was working hard to position themselves as a crucial part of the pandemic solution while furthering their own gains by hindering the advancement of public health policies,” said GHAI vice-president Holly Wong.

Ultra-processed food and sugary drinks promoted by these brands were already contributing to rising rates of obesity, malnutrition, and diet-related diseases, GHAI stressed.

Meanwhile, “Big Tobacco” also apparently jumped at the opportunity to exploit the pandemic to its benefit. It did this, according to a report, by tightening its grip on government entities and officials through opportunistic lobbying.

The Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index 2020, released by STOP – a global tobacco industry watchdog, observed 57 countries during the pandemic. It said that governments were vulnerable to the industry gaining influence.

Patterns showed how public officials were offered jobs in the tobacco industry and vice versa, creating potential conflicts of interest. According to the report, tobacco companies exploited a lack of transparency and coordination across government agencies to gain access.

According to the Index’s lead author, Mary Assunta, ministries of finance, trade, agriculture, development and other non-health agencies were the most susceptible to influence.

By sidestepping health ministries, tobacco companies secured tax breaks and influenced policy decisions that helped them continue to sell products that kill more than eight million people every year.

“The message to governments is: do not take the bait when it comes to industry offers. With tobacco, there are always strings attached and ultimately the cost is paid in human lives,” said Assunta.

“Governments can hold tobacco companies liable for the harm they cause instead, offering a win-win for the economy and health that is especially important during the coronavirus pandemic.”

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