Thu, Jun 26, 2014 - Page 9 News List

World Cup generating healthy profits from sickening message

With sponsors like McDonald’s and Budweiser, soccer’s top-tier event is like a megaphone through which products that pose a risk to global health are advertised to an audience of millions of fans, making them susceptible to ‘profit-driven disease’

By Kent Buse and Sarah Hawkes

Illustration: Mountain People

A billion people watched the opening match of the FIFA World Cup in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and hundreds of millions more will tune in at some point during the month-long tournament. For FIFA’s six major partners and the event’s eight official sponsors, this audience is nothing short of a gold mine. These enterprises pay tens of millions in the hope that some of the magic of the “beautiful game” will rub off on their brands — and it very well may. However, for viewers, that is probably not a good thing.

The run-up to the tournament’s kickoff was not without drama for at least one of FIFA’s partners, Budweiser, which was accused of compelling the Brazilian government to overturn a national law banning the sale of alcohol inside soccer stadiums.

Despite widespread opposition to repeal of the law, soccer’s world governing body was resolute: “Alcoholic drinks are part of the FIFA World Cup, so we’re going to have them.”

Sponsorship by companies like Budweiser, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and convenience food giant Moy Park brings millions in revenue to the game, but what message does it send to the global audience?

Promoting alcohol, sugary drinks and fast food may mean massive profits for corporations, but it also means worse health for individuals and a costly burden on countries’ healthcare systems.

Instead of focusing exclusively on alcohol’s potential to fuel violence inside stadiums, the media should be emphasizing the damage that alcohol and processed foods are causing to the world’s population every day.

Consumption of such products continues to rise — not least because of multibillion-dollar global advertising campaigns.

Over the past decade, global soft drink sales have doubled, per capita alcohol consumption has risen and tobacco use has increased. Making matters worse, most of this growth is occurring in low and middle-income countries, which are the least equipped to handle the coming health crisis.

One factor underlying such threats to public health is classification.

Health experts have traditionally lumped diseases into two categories: communicable diseases, which are caused predominantly by infection, and non-communicable diseases, that is, everything else.

Among non-communicable diseases, there are four conditions that contribute the most to early death or disability: cardiovascular disease, chronic lung conditions, cancer and diabetes.

In 2010, these four conditions caused 47 percent of all deaths, including 9 million deaths of people under 60.

The main risk factors for developing these conditions — smoking tobacco, excessive alcohol consumption, being overweight and insufficient physical exercise — reflect deeply ingrained unhealthy behaviors.

Given that these are precisely the kind of behaviors that companies like the World Cup sponsors are encouraging, a better disease classification would be pestilentia lucro causa (PLC), or “profit-driven disease.”

The overconsumption of alcohol, tobacco and energy-rich processed foods are often framed as lifestyle “choices,” but the determinants of such choices are often removed from people’s immediate control.

The strong associations between profit-driven disease and factors such as poverty or gender suggest that wider social forces exert considerable pressure on individual behaviors that affect health.

Addressing profit-driven diseases calls for a new approach to health and to the organizations charged with protecting it. The current system does not empower the UN and other technical agencies concerned with health governance to confront the determinants of poor health effectively.

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