For the last 10 years or so, we have seen Brussels lobbists becoming increasingly professional, campaigns becoming cleverer and more intricate and ‘EU lobbying’ developing a flavour of its own separate from its Washington cousin, increasingly apparent when US colleagues descend upon us, demanding alien activities to enrage and excite the masses, and their European colleagues try to gently explain that a) we are more difficult to enrage and excite on this side of the Atlantic and b) we speak more than just English. Corporate lobbying has become increasingly organised, effective and pervasive.
So I, in all honesty, am as surprised as most to what appears to be winds of change about (albeit very gently ones, more a breeze really). The Chair of the European Food Safety Authority has just resigned (although rumours abound that she was very firmly pushed) with cries of conflict of interest , and the European Parliament has stretched its budgetary muscle and refused to sign off the accounts of three agencies – the European Food Safety Authority, the European Medicines Agency and the European Environment Agency amid concerns that they were too close to industry. Notably all those agencies work in fields where public health violently collides with industry interests. NGOs and others have been increasingly vocal about the relationship between industry and institutions, amid a flood of empowerment and concern following the financial sector scandals and lack of regulation.
So it is not surprising perhaps, that one Brussels-based organisation is following a very traditional path. The European Policy Centre disseminated a verbatim report of a meeting on nutrition. Ostensibly this should have been really interesting, for me and others interested in public health certainly as the topic covered was the role of education, regulation and personal choice in promoting better nutrition and health. However reading through the text, I was surprised – and then angry – to see the poorly veiled agenda running through (which made much more sense when I checked the EPC membership and saw the powerful business and industry interests that make up its membership: http://www.epc.eu/members_list.php).
First of all, the American academic speaking at the event seems to have focussed on blurring the relationship between sugar and obesity. Really, really? Even the British Telegraph – not the most well-known for its public health pieces – published a great article by Damian Thompson on refined sugar:http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/healthyeating/9275056/Why-cupcakes-are-the-new-cocaine.html. The public health science is firm and decided on this issue, so for the EPC, a respected Think Tank, to be giving voice to this nonsense is downright dangerous. No EU ‘experts’ available to peddle this line? Unsurprising, given that this amounts to the public health equivalent of climate change scepticism.
Secondly, it appears that a representative of the European Federation of Bakers and Confectionary Organizations was given opportunity to wax lyrical on his thoughts on how to tackle obesity. Again, really, really? No one would dream of asking me how to make the perfect croissant (for good reason), so how is this valid public policy debate? Opinion, surely – and worth less than the man in the street, in that the man in the street does not stand to make his fortune by peddling delicious sticky treats.
In times when obesity is still on a par with climate change as one of the biggest challenges of our generation, when the cost of ‘added value’ goods is cheaper than the raw ingredients that make them, when we are seeing unprecedented rises in childhood obesity in countries – such as France, Italy, Greece and Spain – where good diets and good health were traditionally taken for granted, this opinion laden, public affairs exercise masking as serious policy debate is irresponsible, does not do justice to the hard work that many of its members and certainly many within the public health community are undertaking to change this disasterous trend, and I, for one, would have expected a more nuanced and hard-hitting debate from a heavy-weight like the EPC.
What is particularly interesting here is this unscientific positioning is actually far from what appears to be a public-interest trend: Member States appear to have suddenly rediscovered that they have a powerful behavioural tool at their disposal in the name of taxes – and proposals for so-called ‘sin’ taxes are popping up from Denmark (not surprising) to the Netherlands (simply astounding). Although the Netherlands seem to have forgotten (unlike most of their European compatriots) to include tobacco – nothing to do with the alleged links between the government and the tobacco industry surely… Not to mention Ireland, the Celtic Tiger is roaring once more but this time in protection of its population health! But still, these proposals – baby steps though they are – would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. Are the independent Brussels Think Tanks are finding themselves two steps behind the political wind, or does that ‘independence’ seem a little murky now that the policymakers are reminding themselves that they are as accountable to their human citizens as their corporate ones?