Healthwashing: 7 tactics Big Food, Big Soda use to fool you

Healthwashing is a dirty business – a close cousin of whitewashing. Whitewashing is loosely defined as ‘a coordinated attempt to hide unpleasant facts, especially in a political context’. Healthwashing is the weapon food and soft-drink companies use to hide unpleasant, soiled facts about their products.

In 2015,  New York Times writer Anahd O’Connor showed that Coke spent billions over decades funding scientists and front organisations to shift the blame from sugar to fat for the global obesity epidemic. Now in the US, two pastors have filed a lawsuit against Coca-Cola and the American Beverage Association. They say that the company has deliberately deceived customers about health risks through its advertisements. Coca-Cola vigorously disputes all claims. It has deep pockets to protect its profits.

Healthwashing continues to be endemic in food and soft-drinks industries. Here, an Australian university professor of public health gives a guide to seven healthwashing tactics these companies use to market their products. – Marika Sboros

By Rob Moodie, University of Melbourne

The Conversation – Across Africa, there are examples of governments trying to introduce policies that improve health and protect the environment only to find their efforts undermined by unhealthy corporations and their industry associations.

A case in point is South Africa’s efforts to introduce a tax on sugary drinks to reduce the growing burden of obesity. In the process, they are facing a barrage of resistance.

This is one small example of unhealthy industries undermining the public’s health and the global environment.

If you are working to improve public health and the environment in Africa, you need to know what your opponents are up to.

Below is a quick guide to their tactics, which I have assembled as a summary from three sources:

Naomi Oreskes and Eric M Conway, Merchants of Doubt, William Wiist’s The Corporate Playbook, Health, and Democracy: The Snack Food and Beverage Industry’s Tactics in Context, and Nicholas Freudenberg’s Lethal but Legal.

1. Attack legitimate science

  • Accuse science of deception, calling it “junk science” or “bad science,” claiming science is manipulated to fulfil a political agenda.
  • Attack the scientific institutions and government agencies perceived to be acting against corporate interests.
  • Insist that the science is uncertain by claiming scientists don’t know what’s causing it and that more research is needed.
  • Withholding any data unfavourable to the corporate product.
  • Using information in a misleading way; cherry-picking by using facts that are true but irrelevant.
  • Insist that there are many causes to a health or environmental problem, and that addressing just one of them will have minimal impact.
  • Exaggerate the uncertainty inherent in any scientific endeavour to undermine the status of established scientific knowledge.
  • Use corporate-funded studies.
  • Fund researchers sympathetic to corporate causes or products.

2. Attack and intimidate scientists

  • Create doubt by attacking the authenticity and integrity of the author.
  • Attack the credibility of the messenger and allege ulterior motives.
  • Have “attack dogs” intimidate opponents.
  • Smear the enemy – for example, by calling environmentalists “watermelons” (green on the outside and red on the inside), use hatred and fear of communism to transfer animosity to the environmental movement.
  • Threaten to sue — or actually sue — scientists and advocates but avoid or delay
    hearings of the facts.
  • Make accusations using the rhetoric of political suppression.
  • Infiltrate scientific groups and monitor prominent scientists.
  • Create enough doubt to forestall litigation and regulation.
  • Constantly repeat the doubt, using surrogates or “message force multipliers”.
  • Use pejorative terms repeatedly such as “excessive” regulation, “over” regulation, “unnecessary” regulation, “nanny state,” and “health Nazis” to promote fear and disdain.
  • Always demand more proof.
  • Alternatively, aim for self-regulation instead of regulation; introduce corporate voluntary codes to forestall government regulation.

3. Create arms length front organisations

  • Create front groups.
  • Run projects through front groups (“information laundering”) – especially law firms, because they can avoid scrutiny due to attorney – client privilege.
  • Create research institutes that can create their own scientific studies.
  • Sponsor conferences and workshops.
  • Create “independent” newsletters, magazines, and journals (not subject to peer review).
  • Publish findings selectively.
  • Manipulate research funding, design, and authorship.
  • Distribute materials— targeted pamphlets and booklets, social media.
  • Use public opinion polling.

Click here to read: Dr Jason Fung on doctors who betray patients’ trust

4. Manufacture false debate and insist on balance

  • Create the impression of a controversy.
  • Maintain the controversy, keep the debate alive.
  • Create false dichotomies.
  • Insist that responsible journalists cover both sides of the argument equally.
  • Demand balance, relying on the Fairness Doctrine.
  • Divert attention from harmful products.
  • Focus on corporate social responsibility.
  • Set up corporate social responsibility foundations; find small-scale, apparently well-meaning community activities.
  • Focus on other issues as the problem, like physical activity instead of diet, for example.

5. Frame issues in highly creative ways

  • Insist that the problem is very complex, thus implying it can’t have a simple solution, if any.
  • Insist it is premature to suggest remedies.
  • Constantly repeat that technological advances will obviate the need for regulations and that the problem can be solved only through the marketplace.
  • Insist on personal or parental responsibility and insist that government should have no role in influencing individual health behaviour.
  • Use colourful imagery such as “a billion dollar solution to a million dollar problem”); use words like “speculative,” “oversimplified,” “premature,” and “unbalanced”.
  • Use the creation of fear as a tool for change of policy.
  • Diminish the severity of the problem while giving some ground.
  • Admit that it is a serious problem, but not a life-threatening one.
  • Admit that there may be a problem, but it is less severe than everyone says.
  • Argue that the problem is less severe than other problems — those should be
    the priority.
  • Argue that the cost to fix the problem is too high.
  • Claim that the benefits of the problem haven’t been considered.
  • Argue that other options haven’t been considered.
  • Understand and use the power of language – the other side’s language is filled with uncertainties, so make sure yours is certain.

6. Fund industry disinformation campaigns

  • Run industry disinformation campaigns using new and creative forms.
  • Pay and co-opt celebrities and sympathetic expert witnesses.
  • Sponsor conferences to challenge scientific consensus.
  • Align with other issues – employment discrimination, antitax groups.

7. Influence the political agenda

  • Donate to political parties across the political spectrum.
  • Get representatives from unhealthy industries around the policy table, for guideline development or standard setting.
  • Invest heavily in paid lobbyists.
  • Get “friends” in important and influential government roles — for example, by targeted hiring of politicians, their advisers, or senior administration officials once they leave office.
  • Aim to reduce government budgets for regulatory or scientific, or policy activities against corporate interests.
  • The ConversationThis is an edited version of an article that appeared in a publication of the American Journal of Public Health.
  • This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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