New report details hundreds of examples of unhealthy commodity industries leveraging the COVID-19 pandemic

“Signalling Virtue, Promoting Harm: Unhealthy commodity industries and COVID-19” details hundreds of examples of unhealthy commodity industries, led by Big Alcohol, Big Food, and Big Soda, leveraging the COVID-19 pandemic for commercial gain.

10 September 2020

The report raises concerns of corporate capture during the pandemic by the very industries that are fuelling the burden of NCDs worldwide and putting people at greater risk of severe COVID-19 outcomes.

Beer companies adapting their logos to lung icons, burger companies geo-tracking customers with the lure of lockdown freebies, and soft drink giants donating thousands of cans to the homes of struggling communities in Mexico illustrate the multitude of ways in which unhealthy commodity industries have leveraged the COVID-19 pandemic for commercial gain, a new report has exposed today, launched during the 3rd Global Week for Action on NCDs.

Authored by the NCD Alliance and the SPECTRUM Consortium, the report is a preliminary exposé and analysis of tactics and strategies adopted by the unhealthy commodity industries during the COVID-19 pandemic. The report outlines four main strategies - pandemic-tailored marketing campaigns and stunts, corporate social responsibility programmes, shaping policy environments, and fostering partnerships with governments, international agencies and NGOs.

The authors point out that such actions risk exacerbating the pandemic. “Since the early days of the pandemic, we have observed two trends: the growing epidemiological evidence that people living with NCDs are suffering worse outcomes from COVID-19, and that many producers of unhealthy commodities have rapidly adapted their strategies in an attempt to capitalise on the pandemic and lockdowns,” said Lucy Westerman, Policy and Campaigns Manager with the NCD Alliance and a co-author of the report. “It is a bitter irony that companies such as tobacco, alcohol and junk food, whose products increase the risk of NCDs, thereby putting people at higher risk of suffering through the pandemic, have positioned themselves as heroes and partners in the response and have interfered in public policies that seek to protect population health.”

“Signalling Virtue, Promoting Harm” was produced by crowdsourcing examples from advocacy and research specialists around the world to increase awareness and understanding of how companies have responded to COVID-19. To date, the initiative has received a total of 786 submissions from over 90 countries around the world.

A large majority of the examples concerned activities of the alcohol industry and manufacturers of ultra-processed food and drink products (363 and 328 respectively), though the data set also includes notable submissions across breast milk substitutes, fossil fuel, gambling and tobacco. This preliminary report documents some 100 examples.

“COVID-19 has provided global health with an unprecedented prominence and is powerfully illuminating an important policy window, one that is far too significant to allow unhealthy commodity industries to define the agenda moving forward,” said Prof Jeff Collin, co-author of the report and an investigator with the SPECTRUM Consortium based at the University of Edinburgh. “Monitoring and countering their efforts to do so is therefore essential to developing coherent approaches to health and sustainable development that can help build back better for all.” 

In examining the 100 examples of corporate activity around the pandemic and considering their strategic significance, the report highlights a number of key findings:

  • The striking consistency with which such corporate actions have been selected to advance longstanding strategic priorities. Multiple initiatives publicly presented as contributions to national or international efforts to combat the pandemic and support communities are designed to promote brands, products and corporations whose economic interests frequently conflict with public health goals.
  • The rapid adaptation of marketing and promotional activities to address a changing trade context and exploit lockdown demonstrates that a global crisis does not displace maximising shareholder revenue as the key driver of corporate behaviour.
  • The appropriation of health and social justice causes and frontline workers in ostensibly philanthropic initiatives vividly illustrates how corporate social responsibility programmes are shaped by promotional priorities and constitute a specific form of marketing.
  • The pandemic created new opportunities for companies to position themselves as partners in progress for health and sustainable development with governments, international organisations, health agencies and leading NGOs.
  • The volume and global reach of actions by alcohol and ultra-processed food industries demonstrate the need to advance international efforts to manage conflict of interest.
  • It is of vital importance to ensure that initiatives to address the pandemic are coherent with related health and development priorities, notably including effectively tackling NCDs. This imperative raises important questions for governments and for international organisations about their interactions with unhealthy commodity industries.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is ongoing around the world and this report should be seen as just the tip of the iceberg,” said Linda Bauld, Director of the SPECTRUM research consortium. “It is abundantly clear that unhealthy commodity industries will continue to adapt their engagement with COVID-19 as the pandemic, policy responses and economic crises evolve. Mapping this activity is vital if we are to shape a fine-tuned response to COVID-19 and at the same time avoid further exacerbating the pre-existing NCD epidemic.”

“There are lessons to be learned here for those leading the public health response to COVID-19 and planning for our future health security,” said Katie Dain, CEO of the NCD Alliance. “Signalling Virtue, Promoting Harm raises concerns about the prospect of a corporate capture of COVID-19. We see that companies are deploying these tactics pretty consistently worldwide, in order to ingratiate themselves with policymakers whilst barely concealing cynical attempts to weaken current rules and head off future policies. But the merciless impact of COVID-19 on people living with NCDs makes clear that policy change is more urgent than ever. To build back better from the pandemic, governments need to regulate these industries more strictly, to protect people against preventable NCDs and make our societies healthier and more resilient to future health threats.”

Further information

Read the report, Signalling Virtue, Promoting Harm: Unhealthy commodity industries and COVID-19

See the press release on the NCD Alliance website

Visit the NCD Alliance website