Monday, 24 January 2011

"WHO should avoid conflict of interest in key public health policies" - Consumers International and IBFAN at the Executive Board of the WHO

Patti Rundall, from Baby Milk action (UK) spoke at the Executive Board Meeting at the World Health Organisation in Geneva. The point made was clear: public health policies should be led by public interest bodies, otherwise there is a great risk of conflicts of interest.

(integral body of the speech:)

Thank you Mr Chairman for allowing me the opportunity to speak on behalf of Consumers International, the global federation of consumer organisations worldwide and an IBFAN founding member. 
We congratulate WHO on seeking to raise the profile of NCD prevention and control and support the call to integrate the prevention and control of non-communicable diseases into policies across all government departments. If interventions with the best health outcomes are to be prioritized, health ministry’s should take the lead in the development of heath policy and implementation. Providing guidance on the role of different stakeholders is critical, especially if the private commercial sector is considered as an actor, as the risk of conflicts of interest is high. We therefore urge the WHO to give Member States practical guidance on how to minimize or avoid conflicts of interest in relation to the development of key public health policies.
This becomes even more critical considering the proposal for a multi-stakeholder forum for global health. This seems to amount to a restructuring of global health governance.  The notion of actors with commercial interest sharing policy making and governance platforms is worrying. In our experience of multi-stakeholder platforms, it is hard to ensure that strong policies to protect health do not take a back seat to market-led initiatives that mainly benefit industry.  Did the DG herself not warn that policies are “influenced by the action of powerful industries and multinational corporations”?
Member states count on the WHO's impartial and authoritative advice to protect the health of their citizens.  Therefore the WHO's independence in the preparation, implementation and follow-up to the high-level meeting on prevention and control of NCDs must not be compromised by inappropriate partnerships and funding.
The food industry is keen to be involved and fund education, specifically seeking out children, teenage girls and young mothers.  While some governments may welcome such assistance, they should be reminded that there is no such thing as a free lunch. ‘Education’ is all too often used by industry as a subtle and pervasive form of marketing to build trust and to promote ”better for you”  junk foods to children. Since few  governments have legislation to control health and nutrition claims,  the door is left wide open for these market-led strategies leading to dependence on unnecessary products and undermining of sustainable local healthy feeding practices and skills. CSR initiatives should be carefully evaluated and should not be seen as an alternative to regulation.
The Global Strategy on IYCF clearly defines the role of industry: comply with the International Code and manufacture products in line with Codex standards. Given the double burden of malnutrition facing many countries today, WHO must ensure that work on NCDs does not undermine this Global Strategy. The role of industry in the NCD prevention and control needs to be more strictly scrutinized and regulated.
Support to breastfeeding is now recognised as a key strategy to prevent obesity in children, as illustrated in this weeks  Call to Action on Breastfeeding by the US Surgeon General.. We would urge WHO and members states to include protection promotion and support of breastfeeding, including implementation of and compliance with the International Code, as a key strategy to protect the health of citizens globally- both for under- and over-nutrition.