Personal Responsibility, Public health and a Conflict of Interest

I’ve often discussed in the past how conventional health advice is often over simplified and misleading i.e. “if you want to lose weight you just have to consume less calories and move more”. So where then does responsibility lie for the obesity situation we find ourselves?

Should we blame the individual? Have they simply lacked willpower and overeaten? Well, this is a complex question and I believe laying blame with individuals is missing the bigger issue and providing an unnecessary distraction. Our attention is often grabbed with dramatic headlines, “TOO FAT TO WORK”. Whether these people are too lazy or not suitable for work is not the question, we are too distracted by making a judgement to have noticed the rest of the story.
We are all the targets of marketing and promotion by the food giants and many experts would identify this as the cause of our trouble. Mark Hyman MD, explains “Lies by the food industry combined with bad government policy based on food industry lobbying are the major cause of our obesity and diabetes epidemic”.

There are other factors at play here too. Can we rely on government policy? Are those providing expert opinion and advising policy makers impartial?

Dr Aseem Malhotra, of the group ‘Action on Sugar’ stated “It is well known that the food industry spends billions in junk food and sugary drink advertising, targeting the most vulnerable members of society, including children. Now it has been revealed they spend money to influence research too”.

So are those relying on public health advice being misled? How reliable is the information they get? Are we letting down those who don’t thoroughly research for themselves? After all the addictive nature of sugar is well known and if children are targeted early, how much more difficult is it for the adult who has been consuming sugar since childhood?

It’s quite disheartening that this week the BMJ has released an investigation report, also featured by the BBC, detailing widespread conflicts of interest, with public health scientists being involved with the very food companies that produce the widely available processed garbage that has been identified as a serious contributor to the massive obesity issue we face. Money has been received in the form of funding and consultancy fees from the likes of Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Mars and Weightwatchers.

So the Public Health Scientists tasked with producing research and advising on policy are on the payroll of the Food and Drink Giants. Can they maintain impartiality in this environment? The Chairman of the SACN (Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition) group on carbohydrates Professor Ian MacDonald has been reported to have received money from Unilever, Coke and Mars. The BMJ report also revealed, MacDonald “made six separate declarations of involvement with Coca-Cola”.

You could argue the fault lies with government, who should be funding these scientists and remove the need to get industry funding. But why is industry funding these scientists? The companies are worried about research into the “health effects of their products and the threat of health driven regulation and taxes”BMJ


So where does the fault lie for our current predicament? A lot of money is being spent on food industry funded research. You can decide if you want to trust that research and resulting guidance. Just don’t be distracted by the relatively small sums of money being paid to people who are ‘too fat to work’, and ask why are they in this position? It’s not really a fair fight.

For every winner, there’s a loser. Those buying processed, sugary garbage and becoming obese are losing, who do you think is winning?


Action on Sugar. Are top government nutrition advisers addicted to sugar? Press release, 21 Jan 2014.

Dassanayake, D. 2015.Mother and daughter ‘too fat to work’ who get £30k in benefits say they DESERVE the money.

Hyman, M. 2013. How diet soda makes you fat and other food and diet industry secrets.

Gallagher, J. 2015. Row over sugar firms’ links to scientists.

Goldman, G. et al. 2014 Added Sugar, Subtracted Science How Industry Obscures Science and Undermines Public Health Policy on Sugar. Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Gornall, J. BMJ 2015;350:h231 Sugar: spinning a web of influence.

Renton, A. 2014 Obesity tsars, sugar firms paying them a fortune and a very unhealthy relationship.

Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition. Draft carbohydrates and health report. 2014

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