Big Industry Fuels Chronic Diseases and Blocks Health Policies, WHO Report Reveals

The WHO's report provides compelling evidence of the significant harm caused by the tobacco, alcohol, ultra-processed food, and fossil fuel industries.

Big Industry Fuels Chronic Diseases and Blocks Health Policies, WHO Report Reveals
Photo by Marcin Jozwiak / Unsplash

The World Health Organization (WHO) has recently published a groundbreaking report detailing the harmful impact of four major industries on public health: tobacco, alcohol, ultra-processed foods, and fossil fuels.

According to the report, these industries are responsible for a staggering 2.7 million deaths annually in the European Region, contributing significantly to the prevalence of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as cardiovascular diseases, cancers, diabetes, and chronic respiratory illnesses. Furthermore, the report exposes how these industries obstruct health policies and exploit vulnerable populations to protect profits.

The "Big Four" and Their Devastating Impact

The WHO report identifies tobacco, alcohol, ultra-processed foods, and fossil fuels as the primary drivers of high mortality rates linked to NCDs. These industries employ various strategies to maximize profits, often at the expense of public health. Tobacco alone is responsible for over 1 million deaths annually in the region, while alcohol consumption, poor diets, and pollution from fossil fuels significantly contribute to the burden of disease.


Tobacco use remains one of the leading causes of preventable deaths worldwide. The report highlights that despite decades of public health campaigns and regulatory efforts, the tobacco industry continues to employ aggressive marketing strategies, particularly targeting young people and low-income populations.

The industry's influence extends to political lobbying, where significant resources are spent to oppose regulations that could curb smoking rates.


The alcohol industry similarly poses a significant threat to public health. Excessive alcohol consumption is linked to a wide range of health issues, including liver disease, cancer, and cardiovascular problems.

The report reveals that alcohol companies often market their products in ways that glamorize drinking, particularly among youth. Additionally, they lobby against policies such as minimum pricing and advertising restrictions that are proven to reduce alcohol-related harm.

Ultra-Processed Foods

Consumption of ultra-processed foods is another major contributor to NCDs. These foods are typically high in sugars, fats, and salts and low in nutritional value.

The report details how food companies use extensive marketing campaigns to promote these unhealthy products, often targeting children through advertisements and promotional deals. The industry's opposition to regulatory measures such as sugar taxes and clear nutritional labelling further exacerbates the public health crisis.

Fossil Fuels

While primarily associated with environmental harm, the fossil fuel industry also has profound health implications. Air pollution from burning fossil fuels is linked to respiratory diseases, heart conditions, and cancers.

The report discusses how the fossil fuel industry has historically downplayed these health impacts and lobbied against environmental regulations. Their influence on policy-making has delayed crucial actions to mitigate climate change and protect public health.

Industry Tactics: Manipulation and Exploitation

The report highlights several tactics used by these industries to influence public policy and consumer behaviour:

  • Targeted Marketing: These industries aggressively market their products to vulnerable populations, including children and low-income communities. For example, tobacco companies have been known to sponsor events and distribute free samples in areas with high youth foot traffic.
  • Lobbying and Political Influence: They leverage significant financial resources to oppose public health regulations and shape scientific evidence and public discourse to their advantage. Alcohol companies, for instance, have been found to fund research that minimizes the risks associated with drinking.
  • Misleading Claims: Industries often make false or misleading claims about their products' benefits or environmental credentials. The ultra-processed food industry frequently labels unhealthy products as "natural" or "organic" to appeal to health-conscious consumers.
  • Exploitation During Crises: During crises, these industries exploit the situation to further their interests, often undermining public health efforts. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the fossil fuel industry lobbied for regulatory rollbacks under the guise of economic recovery.

Recommendations for Change

The WHO report calls for robust government action to combat these industries' detrimental influence. Key recommendations include:

  • Stronger Regulations: Implementing stricter regulations on marketing harmful products and curbing monopolistic practices. This includes banning tobacco advertising, enforcing minimum alcohol pricing, and imposing taxes on sugary drinks.
  • Transparency and Accountability: Enhancing transparency in lobbying activities, funding, and conflicts of interest to ensure public trust. Governments should require full disclosure of industry-funded research and lobbying efforts.
  • Taxation and Economic Measures: Applying taxes similar to the Soft Drinks Industry Levy to incentivize healthier product formulations. Revenue from these taxes could fund public health initiatives and educational campaigns.
  • Support for Civil Society: Providing funding and support to organizations to enable them to advocate effectively for public health. Empowering these organizations can help counterbalance the influence of powerful industries.

The Role of Governments and Civil Society

Governments are urged to develop mechanisms to identify and mitigate conflicts of interest, ensuring public policies are protected from industry interference. This includes prioritizing public health in trade agreements and adopting health-oriented interpretations of economic laws. Governments must also invest in public health infrastructure and education to reduce the prevalence of NCDs.

Civil society organizations also play a crucial role in advocating for stronger public health policies and holding industries accountable. By raising awareness, conducting independent research, and lobbying for change, these organizations can help shift public opinion and influence policy decisions.


The WHO's report provides compelling evidence of the significant harm caused by the tobacco, alcohol, ultra-processed food, and fossil fuel industries. The report calls for urgent and decisive action from governments and civil society to protect public health by highlighting the tactics used to obstruct health policies and target vulnerable populations. The need to prioritize people over profits has never been more critical.

As we face increasing rates of chronic diseases and environmental challenges, we must address the root causes perpetuated by these industries. We can create a healthier, more sustainable future for all through collective action and robust policy measures.

The full report is available on the WHO website for more detailed information.