Viewpoint: Should the food industry fund health research?

Professor Capewell

Professor Capewell

In The British Medical Journal (BMJ) this week leading experts debate whether the food industry should be able to fund health research, and if so, under what circumstances.

Professor Simon Capewell is Vice-President for policy for the UK Faculty of Public Health and a professor of clinical epidemiology at the University. Professor Capewell is also a trustee for the UK Health Forum for Heart of Mersey and a founder member of Action on Sugar.

“Many academics will argue that they should accept funding from industry because such collaborations can help advance research and improve public health. They argue that the food industry is crucial and employs more people than any other sector in the UK. Despite the fact the industry does promote products that undermine public health.

“To improve the nutritional quality of their products some manufacturers will invest large amounts of money well in excess of public research investment.

“Both I and my University of Bath colleague Professor Anna Gilmore have serious concerns when it comes to this approach as, we believe, food industry funding biases research and corrupts policy advice. It seriously constrains the fight against the obesity epidemic.

“Industry funded research produces uniquely favourable outcomes. Internal documents show how they manipulate evidence in their favour, strategically communicate that evidence to influence public and political opinion, and ultimately minimise regulation and legal liability.
“While the food industry is diverse, there is a clear conflict between ultra-processed food and sugary soft drinks companies, and public health.

“It is unsurprising, therefore, that similar evidence is now emerging for these companies. Studies they fund are generally biased in their favour. Just like Tobacco and Alcohol industry funded work.

“Previously secret documentation shows they are working to ensure research and researchers they fund deflect attention from their products and unwanted regulatory interventions.

“They promote weak or ineffective interventions aimed at individuals rather than upstream population level regulation, and emphasise physical activity and energy balance to the exclusion of diet based drivers of obesity, messaging reinforced by non-governmental organisations fronted by industry funded scientists.

“We must not allow the food industry and its allies to use smokescreens (such as limited industry collaboration in independently funded studies) to obfuscate and delay action on the key issue in this debate—the funding of obesity related research by corporations whose interests are threatened by effective anti-obesity interventions.”

The full article entitled ‘Should we welcome food industry funding of public health research?’ can be found here.

Professor Capewell

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