How Cheap is Corporate Talk?

By Shelby Huffman

The tobacco industry wrote, and continues to write, the playbook on circumventing attempts at regulation- from targeting overseas markets with lax restrictions and bullying them out of attempts to create any restrictions (1), to that almost comically evil time they had their lawyers interpret a religious text in their favour (2). While public health and corporate agendas have been at odds for a long time, the idea of the effect of corporate behaviour on public health as a research question is relatively new. If you’re interested in this stuff, a good article is the Moodie et al. one from the Lancet’s non-communicable disease series, which concluded that public regulation and market intervention are the most effective and only evidence-based mechanisms to prevent harm cause by so-called unhealthy commodity industries such as tobacco, alcohol, and ultra-processed food and drink industries (3). Often though, when such regulations are proposed, the industries targeted will denounce them as unworkable and unreasonably costly to their business.

A recent paper by James Coleman at the University of Calgary compares companies’ feedback on proposed regulations to what they told their investors (4). This paper addresses questions of whether corporations are “crying wolf”, and of how seriously we should take the warnings they come up with when regulations are proposed. He finds that oil companies send inconsistent messages to the two audiences, simultaneously warning regulators and reassuring investors, and recommends that regulators use this methodology- comparing statements between these two audiences- to assess the sincerity of industry warnings. While Coleman’s paper is about oil companies, its implications for public health aren’t hard to imagine.


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