Is corporate PR duping us and derailing solutions to global warming and chronic diseases?

‘We need to go back to basics to organise ourselves in groups, to have clear political objectives and to demand change’

One of the standout aspects of the Cop28 global summit in Dubai in December 2023 was that there were almost 2,500 fuel lobbyists given access to the climate change conference whose mission is to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions — mainly through phasing out fossil fuels. The Climate Change Coalition, Kick Big Polluters Out said that the number of representatives of some of the world’s biggest polluters at the annual UN negotiations was unprecedented.

The problem with corporate lobbyists jostling for space to influence everyone from politicians to policymakers, financiers to innovators and even some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) is that they are good at what they do.

It can be easy to be seduced by arguments for carbon capture and storage as a viable solution to global warming when deadlines to reduce emissions are closing in on us when the technology is hugely expensive and unproven at scale. It can also seem comforting to hear how big fossil fuel industries are “electrifying” their production processes until you stop and think that this allows them to continue selling the fuels that caused global warming in the first place.

Grant Ennis, author of a new book, Dark PR — how corporate disinformation undermines our health and the environment (Daraja Press) tackles head-on some of the key strategies used by the corporate world to dupe people into thinking they are doing the right thing while the real solutions to problems such as global warming and chronic diseases don’t take hold.

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Ennis was in Trinity College Dublin (TCD) recently to explain what he describes as the “nine devious frames” which deter political action to solve global warming, chronic diseases and road deaths. These include normalisation (eg accepting road accidents will happen, accepting that people will be obese and become diabetic), victim-blaming (shifting the blame for obesity, road deaths and global warming on to the individual rather than the environment and infrastructure) and focusing on complexity narratives (eg lung cancer is also caused by air pollution, genetics, viruses as well as smoking).

“All of these devious frames dilute support for political action,” he says. These narratives encourage us to act as individuals, thereby reducing the drive to act in groups to collectively protest. “We need to go back to basics to organise ourselves in groups, to have clear political objectives and to demand change”.

But, Ennis, who lectures part-time on public health policy at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, while working as an NGO manager in trouble spots around the world, also points out some of the key concepts that we have come to accept in these debates were developed by the very companies who want to maintain the status quo.

“British Petroleum invented the carbon footprint calculator and corporate focus groups in the United States worked out that people were less likely to be politically active if we start calling global warming climate change instead,” he explains, adding that republican politicians in the US switched immediately to calling global warming climate change en masse once this was pointed out to them. He also says the plastics industry lobbied to stop using glass bottles, then sponsored plastic recycling while blaming people for causing plastic pollution.

Ennis draws attention to how governments around the world continue to subsidise the fossil fuel industries. In Ireland, subsidies to fossil fuel companies for 2021 were €2.9 billion, up from €2.5 billion in 2020. This compared to €0.7 billion spent on environmental subsidies in 2021. He also questions why governments subsidise the ultra-processed food and beverage industry by allowing them to classify marketing as a tax-deductible expense.

In his book, he writes, “these structures are not held in place by a cabal of evil doers; rather they are maintained through incentives that lead mostly indifferent stakeholders to carry out innumerable small bad acts”. But he adds, “many corporations want to keep the conversation around individual responsibility not systemic change or corporate culpability”.

“We need sustained and organised movements always putting pressure on politicians to counter the corporate lobbies,” he says. The best country is not the one which adapts best to pollution but the one that prevents environmental destruction, he contends. Similarly, an over focus on treating obesity and diabetes will never prevent it.

Ennis notes research has shown that educational campaigns to prevent obesity — often sponsored by the food industry — don’t work. He cites esteemed Cochrane reviews from 2002-2019 which found education programmes don’t lead to population weight loss. He says that researchers haven’t found a beneficial impact from nutritional food labelling, carbon labels and alcohol labels. “These media campaigns haven’t been found to change behaviour. Instead, I suggest banning advertising of harmful industries,” he says.

Put succinctly, he says the real determinants of what makes people healthy are price (eg making alcohol and tobacco prohibitively expensive), proximity (what you can or can’t buy near where you live) and temporality (eg opening hours of off-licences).

His book is full of statistics and study references to back up his theories. One stand-out figure is that annual individual consumption of sugar rose from 10lbs in the 1820s to 150lbs in 2019. “The world became saturated with cheap sugar in the last number of years. In the 1950s, about one per cent of the population had diabetes and now about 11 per cent of people have it,” he says, suggesting that increasing the price of junk food would be far more effective than healthy eating campaigns to prevent obesity.

And while these messages about the deviousness of corporations and their public relations companies might seem difficult to digest, Ennis is not alone in his views that citizens (when you call us consumers, we are also less lightly to be politically active) and politicians are easily taken in by these strategies. The result is hard decisions such as banning fast food outlets close to schools and hospitals, reducing speed limits in urban areas and building high-density housing so people can take public transport and walk to work become mired in debate.

Dr Sheila Gilheany, chief executive of NGO Alcohol Action Ireland is clear about the power of the drinks industry lobby in Ireland and how they circumnavigate bans on advertising on playing fields, buses and billboards close to schools. “They advertise zero alcohol products in these spaces. Zero alcohol products are 1.5 per cent of the market yet the alcohol marketing spend in these [banned] spaces is 25 per cent of the entire alcohol industry spend,” she explains.

Janis Morrisey, chairwoman of Health Promotion Alliance Ireland, says charities remain small organisations against the might of industry and that knowledge about the commercial determinants of health remains low among Irish politicians. “There is so much messaging about lifestyle, diet and exercise and being better parents but we need to highlight the impact of harmful tactics by vested interests that are used to delay adoption of health policy and tackle the structural drivers of chronic disease.”

Morrisey says that just four industries — tobacco, unhealthy foods, fossil fuels and alcohol — are responsible for at least one-third of deaths globally. “The workplace smoking ban of 20 years ago proved the government’s ability to stand up to the big tobacco lobby. Now, Government needs to repeat this brave action with other sectors who all use the same corporate playbook to oppose any progressive health policy,” she adds.

At his talk in TCD, Ennis suggested a charter for a healthy and more sustainable Ireland would include an end to tax subsidies for marketing, advertising and public relations, an end to all subsidies for fossil fuels, sugar, alcohol, driving and other harmful industries and end industry influence loopholes such as informal coffee loopholes that make conversations over coffee between lobbyists and Government officials undocumented.

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