The alcohol industry has long tried to influence public health policies that it deems a threat to its profits and market share. So have the tobacco, ultra processed food (UPF) and gambling industries, though much less is known about the last.
Accumulating research on corporate political activity (CPA) indicates that similar strategies are adopted by different industries, but this had not been demonstrated systematically. In our recent study, we set out to explore the common features of the strategies used by these four industries to produce an evidence-based and more widely applicable ‘taxonomy’ of corporate political activity (CPA).
First, to avoid ambiguity, we developed an updated definition of CPA: practices to secure preferential treatment and/or prevent, shape, circumvent or undermine public policies in ways that further corporate interests.
We grouped the bewildering variety of strategies corporations use under two main categories: ‘framing’ and ‘action’. Framing strategies are fundamental to industry aims and seek to shape people’s ideas about product related health harms and what can be reasonably done to prevent them. They also signal the ‘value’ of the various actors in the field: public health advocates, researchers, policy makers and, of course, corporations. Action strategies, on the other hand, are used to persuade these actors, in particular policymakers, of the veracity, legality and value of industry’s frames, or narratives.
The ’good’ v the ‘bad’
A closer look at industry narratives reveals a simplistic, almost child-like, view of the world where corporations are represented as good-intentioned and competent while scientists, activists and policymakers who advocate public policies that alarm industry are either bad or incompetent or both. Corporations assume a multitude of identities such as public health specialist, social justice activist, scientist or policy maker, in effect creating the impression that only they can further the public interest. In reality, their single and unalterable identity is that of a profit-seeking organisation.
The health harms caused by products or services are framed as either non-existent or trivial, being restricted to a minority of users and sometimes presented as medical problems that need (individual) treatment. It follows that the ‘good’ solutions promoted by corporations are also limited in nature. They are directed at changing individuals’ behaviours through education and information and invariably involve self-regulation and voluntary actions by industry. In contrast, policies that are directed at whole populations and that require state regulation are framed as ‘bad’ because they are: socially and morally undesirable, legally questionable, damaging to the economy and ineffective.
In reality, health harms caused by alcohol, tobacco and UPF are pervasive and substantial, and, worryingly, their sales are growing in low and middle income countries. Evidence shows that the most effective public policies to counter these deadly trends are whole-population, regulatory initiatives such as taxation, restricting availability and/or advertising and altering product presentation.
Managing public spaces
Actions strategies are suffusive; they reach many parts of social life and can be overt, covert or somewhere in the middle, i.e. opaque. We categorised them under six headings: policymaking, the public, the evidence, the law, public health delivery, reputation-making.
Accessing policy spaces and policymakers was key and relied on both cooperative and confrontational actions of persuasion at all levels (from local to international). For example, both offers of expertise/information/money and threats to withdraw investments were used. Gaining support from other businesses and the public was equally important, achieved through (hidden) alliances with disparate public individuals and organisations and the use of the media.
Next, corporations sought to create doubt about the evidence base for unwanted policies through a) undermining and providing false critiques of public research and b) creating alternative, industry-sponsored, research and blending this into the main body of public evidence. The law was a useful instrument too, with corporations taking or threatening legal action against unwanted policies.
Through partnerships with public bodies, corporations were increasingly involved in funding/delivering public health services, enabling them to narrow the field to less effective interventions. Finally, cutting across all these strategies was that of reputation management; this involved elevating their own reputation (e.g. through corporate social responsibility activities) while undermining that of their opponents.
How can policy respond?
It is true that health harming industries (and others like fossil fuel and pharmaceutical industries) have had much practice in developing policy influence strategies and are adept at them. These activities are well-funded, ubiquitous, and ‘hyper-adaptable’ across the globe.
But through reflexivity and recognising the weaknesses in industry strategizing, policymakers and advocates can mount effective counter strategies.
CPA is not deployed in a vacuum. Policymakers need to be mindful that structural realities – neoliberal values, GDP-focused economies, aversion to regulation, global trade agreements – all expose governments to industry influence and render them more receptive to it. They must be alive to possibly subconscious ways in which these contingencies shape (and limit) their own responses. We hope that our new CPA model will help here as it draws attention to these underlying social forces.
The chief weakness in industry strategizing is that it is highly predictable, allowing policymakers to pre-empt many corporate initiatives. Furthermore, while adaptability of CPA is a strength, this can lead to incoherent messaging across settings and time, which policymakers can call out. The fact that corporations often provide caricaturised accounts of the world in their campaigns should lead policymakers to question the seriousness of their claims. Finally, easily fact-checked falsehoods are liberally used by corporations; it is crucial to detect and expose these.
Above all, it must be recognised that CPA is a corruption of democracy, that there is nothing inevitable or benign about it and that private (profit oriented) and public interests are irreconcilable.
Written by Dr Selda Ulucanlar, Honorary Research Fellow, University of Bath.
All IAS Blogposts are published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Institute of Alcohol Studies.