November 11, 2012 by Sarah S.
“At the time, it never crossed my mind that marketing 40-ounce bottles (yes, 40 ounces, more than half a six-pack) of a more potent alcoholic beverage […] to inner-city customers, primarily African-Americans with higher than typical unemployment levels might be—there is no other way to put it—more than a little irresponsible.”
As I began to explore the question of whether the food industry could be a friend to public health, this quote from Hank Cardello in Stuffed continually crept into my mind. Granted, this story took place some time ago and we’ve come along way in general knowledge about the detrimental effects of marketing certain products to vulnerable populations. But, the cynic in me still cries out that any industry led by people who honestly never considered that this marketing strategy could be harmful has a long way to go before it can be considered a friend to public health.
Even if we take a more optimistic view, there are several issues that must be resolved before the food industry and public health can truly work together to improve the health of our citizens. Probably the most important (and most obvious) hurdle is that the food industry is going to act in the interest of making a profit — to expect them to behave any differently would be unrealistic. And this, I believe, is the Catch-22 of public/private partnership:
If the food industry is going to make sweeping changes to improve the foods and beverages it markets, these changes must be profitable. To be profitable, the public health sector must first succeed in convincing people to demand and choose the healthier options over the less healthy ones. But, for widespread success, the public health sector must have funding (often from industry, introducing a potential for duplicity) and must fight against the advertising and promotion of the profitable, less-healthy options.
For example, I took this picture at the store yesterday. We have an up-hill battle if we’re fighting against double-decker Oreos…
It seems to me that, in light of the profit-driven reality of industry, one of the first steps in moving toward public-private partnerships is for the public health world to think critically about how industry can benefit from working alongside public health and then to communicate that message to industry leaders effectively. The process of working together might begin as participation and interaction between these two groups that could progress to true partnership in the future. (For a description of the difference between participation and partnership, see this viewpoint from the European Commission on public-private partnerships).
While I’m not sure that this point in time will be reached anytime soon, it seems that the major chronic health problems plaguing our society won’t be controlled until the general population internalizes the message that they need to eat less of the readily-available, nutrient-poor foods that stock the shelves OR until the food industry stops stocking the shelves with this type of food. The difficulty lies in the fact that neither of things will happen without the other also occurring. I’m at a loss for solutions – does anyone else have ideas?
Cardello, H. (2009). Stuffed: An insider’s look at who’s really making America fat. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.
Hawkes, C., Buse, K. (2011). Public health sector and food industry interaction: it’s time to clarify the term ‘partnership’ and be honest about underlying interests. European Journal of Public Health, 21(4), 400-403.