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Addressing the commercial determinants of health: David versus Goliath?

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Tuesday 5 June 2018, 12.00PM

Speaker(s): Professor Simon Capewell, Dept Public Health & Policy, University of Liverpool

This is a cross-departmental seminar organised by the Wellcome Trust “EQUIty in health POLicy” (EQUIPOL) research group, led by Tim Doran (DOHS) and Richard Cookson (CHE).

The seminar will be chaired by Tim Doran.


The rise in childhood and adult obesity is inequitable and avoidable; it urgently needs to be arrested and then reversed. Unhealthy processed food and sugary drinks are a major contributing factor, and there is increasing interest in the tactics being used by the food industry to resist change. Advocacy and activism will be essential to counter these “denialism tactics” and ensure that scientific evidence is translated by legislators into effective regulation and taxation.

Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like cancer, diabetes, heart disease and stroke prematurely kill over 30 million people each year, and generate massive inequalities. Global burden of disease analyses consistently demonstrate that poor diet produces a bigger NCD burden than tobacco, alcohol and inactivity put together. Poor diet is based on sugary drinks and junk food high in sugar, salt and animal fats. This “ultra processed food” is principally marketed by ten multi-national corporations, industrial leviathans each with an annual global revenue  exceeding $50Bn. Yet this industry denies harming people. Indeed, the denial tactics used by the food industry reflect the tactics previously used by the tobacco companies. Tackling poor diet is a more complex issue than tobacco but lessons learnt from successfully fighting the tobacco industry remain highly relevant. For instance, the food industry ruthlessly resists the most powerful, equitable and cost-saving policies - regulation and taxation - instead promoting weak or ineffective policies such as education, public partnerships or voluntary reformulation.

Despite this, public health is winning thanks to the “holy trinity” of scientific evidence, public support and political engagement. The UK food industry thus now faces increasing pressure from professionals, public and politicians to accept reformulation and taxes, or face more stringent measures.

Speaker biography:  Simon trained in clinical medicine then public health, joining the University of Liverpool in 1999. He advises diverse public health bodies locally, nationally and internationally, and was recently President of the Society for Social Medicine (2014 & 2015), then Vice President (Policy) for the UK Faculty of Public Health (2016-2018).

Simon enjoys facilitating multidisciplinary research teams, mentoring colleagues and writing papers and grant applications. His recent research (funded by MRC, NIH, NIHR, EU & BHF) has examined: a) why cardiovascular death rates have recently plummeted in high income countries, but risen in some other populations; and b) the development of effective, equitable and cost-saving CVD prevention strategies in diverse countries, majoring on healthy food & tobacco policies.

Twitter @SimonCapewell99

Location: Room ATB/056, Seebohm Rowntree Building

Admission: is free of charge and open to all. No booking required.