‘Nothing can be done until everything is done’: the use of complexity arguments by food, beverage, alcohol and gambling industries

Petticrew, M., Katikireddi, S. V. , Knai, C., Cassidy, R., Hessari, N. M., Thomas, J. and Weishaar, H. (2017) ‘Nothing can be done until everything is done’: the use of complexity arguments by food, beverage, alcohol and gambling industries. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 71(11), pp. 1078-1083. (doi: 10.1136/jech-2017-209710) (PMID:28978619) (PMCID:PMC5847098)

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Abstract

Background: Corporations use a range of strategies to dispute their role in causing public health harms and to limit the scope of effective public health interventions. This is well documented in relation to the activities of the tobacco industry, but research on other industries is less well developed. We therefore analysed public statements and documents from four unhealthy commodity industries to investigate whether and how they used arguments about complexity in this way. Methods: We analysed alcohol, food, soda and gambling industry documents and websites and minutes of reports of relevant health select committees, using standard document analysis methods. Results: Two main framings were identified: (i) these industries argue that aetiology is complex, so individual products cannot be blamed; and (ii) they argue that population health measures are ‘too simple’ to address complex public health problems. However, in this second framing, there are inherent contradictions in how industry used ‘complexity’, as their alternative solutions are generally not, in themselves, complex. Conclusion: The concept of complexity, as commonly used in public health, is also widely employed by unhealthy commodity industries to influence how the public and policymakers understand health issues. It is frequently used in response to policy announcements and in response to new scientific evidence (particularly evidence on obesity and alcohol harms). The arguments and language may reflect the existence of a cross-industry ‘playbook’ , whose use results in the undermining of effective public health policies – in particular the undermining of effective regulation of profitable industry activities that are harmful to the public’s health.

Item Type:Articles
Status:Published
Refereed:Yes
Glasgow Author(s) Enlighten ID:Katikireddi, Dr Vittal and Petticrew, Dr Mark and Weishaar, Dr Heide
Authors: Petticrew, M., Katikireddi, S. V., Knai, C., Cassidy, R., Hessari, N. M., Thomas, J., and Weishaar, H.
College/School:College of Medical Veterinary and Life Sciences > Institute of Health and Wellbeing > MRC/CSO SPHSU
College of Medical Veterinary and Life Sciences > School of Medicine, Dentistry & Nursing
Journal Name:Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health
Publisher:BMJ Publishing Group
ISSN:0143-005X
ISSN (Online):1470-2738
Published Online:04 October 2017
Copyright Holders:Copyright © 2017 The Authors
First Published:First published in Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 71(11):1078-1083
Publisher Policy:Reproduced under a Creative Commons License

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