“Without clear efforts to promote action on the prevention of unhealthy diets, the rise of [noncommunicable diseases] will remain on the margins of global health action. States cannot remain passive in the face of NCDs. They should adopt an integral approach to reduce the consumption of unhealthy food products through the use of a broader set of laws and regulations”, said the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, Dr. Dainius Püras, in a statement released yesterday.
The statement sends a powerful message about the adoption of front-of-package warning labelling regulations for unhealthy foods and beverages as a key measure in tackling the global burden of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs). Both the newly-appointed UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Michael Fakhri, and the UN Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises have also endorsed the statement.
Global burden of non-communicable diseases
NCDs are the leading cause of mortality in the world. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), these diseases kill 41 million people each year. NCDs are the main source of morbidity and mortality in most countries, and cause of great societal and economic costs. Among the risk factors for NCDs, the international community has expressed concerns about unhealthy diets, obesity and overweight, due to their profound impact on the public’s health in many countries. The World Health Organization has recommended a series of interventions, such as front-of-package warning labelling, which has the potential to play a key role in preventing obesity and overweight by assisting consumers in making healthier choices.
Front-of-package warning labeling as a concrete obligation under the right to health
While previous mandate holders have urged States to regulate the food and beverage industry’s practices related to advertising, marketing, and promotion of unhealthy food products, the Special Rapporteur’s statement goes further. It represents the first time a UN Special Procedures mandate-holder has singled out a concrete public health regulatory measure – in this case, front-of-package warning labeling – as an effective means of promoting healthier lives and protecting the public’s health.
Dr. Püras recognizes that “States are required to adopt regulatory measures aimed at tackling NCDs, such as front-of-package warning labeling,” characterizing it as a concrete obligation of States under the right to health. He makes the case by stressing that the “warning” component of this labeling system “allows consumers to identify more clearly and effectively products with a nutritional profile detrimental to health” and “balances the starting point for all consumers by providing equality in access to information relevant to health.” Dr. Püras also explains that front-of-package warning labeling “reduces the perception of healthfulness of food products that contain excessive levels of critical nutrients, such as sugars, sodium, total fats, trans-fats and saturated fats among consumers” and thereby “promotes healthy decisions, discourages the consumption of [these] food products…, and counteracts the effects of living in an obesogenic environment”.
The statement, moreover, touches on the partial or full suspension of legislation involving front-of-package warning labelling that has occurred recently in some States. According to Dr. Püras, to the extent that these actions interfere with the enjoyment of any of the components of the right to health, they constitute a violation of States’ obligation to respect that right.
Finally, Dr. Püras’ statement identifies front-of-package warning labeling “as a key component of a comprehensive strategy to promote healthier lives” and “an effective stepping stone for States to pursue a set of additional measures that promote and protect the right to health, such as taxation, regulating school environments, and imposing marketing restrictions.” Consequently, States should not limit their actions (or measures) to address diet-related NCDs risk factors to the adoption of front-of-package warning labeling, but rather include them as part of a comprehensive “approach to reduce the consumption of unhealthy food products through the use of a broader set of laws and regulations”.
The role of the food and beverage industry and States’ obligation to regulate
The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health expresses grave concern over the role of corporations in States’ efforts to adopt and implement front-of-package warning labeling regulations, which he characterizes as an “an undue influence” on government decision-making. Dr. Püras highlights multiple tactics deployed by the food and beverage industry to interfere and influence the adoption of public health laws, regulations, and policies, including misinformation, litigation or threat thereof, and other strategies “to delay and/or block implementation of these regulatory measures, to overturn them or diminish their effect.” Corporations have also influenced and interfered with government decision-making processes by promoting opposition by politicians and “grassroots” groups to unfavorable regulations, and relying on corporate social responsibility platforms to legitimize their activities and build goodwill.
In addition, Dr. Püras observes that the food and beverage industry sponsors research to cover up the harmful effects of its food products, undermining the international human rights law standard according to which rational and rigorous policy-making must be based on evidence that is free from conflicts of interest. As a result, industry-funded research should be scrutinized as an intentional effort to cover up a product’s harm, and government decision-making should instead be “driven by human rights and scientific evidence free from conflicts of interest.”
The evolving nature of NCDs regulatory measures
Relying on the best available evidence in public health to inform government decision-making regarding NCDs regulatory measures also means that “what is normatively required must evolve with changing understandings of science.” In the statement, Dr. Püras argues that “the decision on which front-of-package labeling system should be adopted must be linked to its effectiveness to achieve public health goals.” Moreover, given that the food and beverage industry will adjust their promotional strategies in the face of stricter regulatory measures, Dr. Püras recommends that States continually monitor and evaluate their front-of-package labeling measures to “assess their impact as well as to identify where improvements are needed”.
This statement is a call for action. It sends a clear message that, in order to protect the right to health, states must adopt regulatory measures aimed at tackling NCDs, such as front-of-package warning labelling on unhealthy foods and beverages. Moreover, the statement will serve as a valuable tool for States that are implementing front-of-package warning labelling and, in the process, are facing significant pressure and threats from food and beverage industries seeking to prevent government regulation in the name of public health.
It will be important that the new mandate holder, Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng, prioritizes the global rise of NCDs within her agenda and gives further guidance on how states can make use of a broader set of laws and regulations to proactively and comprehensively address the diet-related NCDs preventable risk factors, and to reduce the global burden of these diseases.
Oscar A. Cabrera is the Program Director of the Global Center for Legal Innovation on Food Environments at the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law and a Visiting Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center.
Andrés Constantin is an Institute Associate of the Global Center for Legal Innovation on Food Environments at the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law.
About the Global Center for Legal Innovation on Food Environments
Housed at the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University Law Center, the newly established Global Center for Legal Innovation on Food Environments is an applied, academic center seeking to strengthen the academic work being done in the area of healthy food law and policy, while also serving as the formal link between scholars and practitioners working on these issues, amplifying the ultimate impact of healthy food law and policy reform initiatives.
Image courtesy of: El Poder del Consumidor