How Corporate Politics Impact Public Health Policy

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Professor Eric Crosbie, Assistant Professor of the School of Community Health Sciences at the University of Nevada, Reno

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “Of all the major health threats to emerge, none has challenged the very foundation of public health so profoundly as the rise of chronic noncommunicable diseases.” In fact, WHO reports that noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), such as cardiovascular and lung diseases, diabetes and cancer, cause 70% of all deaths worldwide.

With the increasing threat that NCDs pose to public health, community health professionals could benefit from graduate degree training at the University of Nevada, Reno in understanding both the genetic and the external factors that contribute to these diseases. An external factor under increasing public scrutiny is the influence major corporations have on the rise of NCDs.

According to Eric Crosbie, an associate professor of the School of Community Health Sciences at the University of Nevada, Reno, “In the 21st century, the community health profession has given particular attention to the impact large corporations have on NCDs and what policies and actions can be taken to prevent these diseases — such as policies that alter behaviors relating to tobacco use, unhealthy eating and alcohol abuse.”

Crosbie’s research looks at the role commercial industries play in the NCD epidemic, as well as the corresponding influence on NCD regulations.

What Is Public Health Policy?

Who describes health policy as the “decisions, plans, and actions that are undertaken to achieve specific health care goals within a society.” Public health policy refers to government laws and regulations that impact a community or population’s overall health.

Community health professionals advocate for the public by taking a multidisciplinary approach to understanding a specific community or population. This comprehensive method focuses on the determinants of health: factors that impact an individual’s health positively or negatively. The determinants of health include not only genetics but also their social environment, such as an individual’s physical surroundings, economic status and personal behaviors.

“We’re seeing a new wave of literature focusing less on social determinants and more on commercial determinants,” Crosbie says. “Look at how corporations from the tobacco, food, pharmaceuticals, and fossil fuel industry influence and impact public health. In this context, fossil fuel pollution would be considered a commercial determinant, as it contributes to the development of chronic lung conditions. Sugary soda drinks are directly linked to diabetes, and if a population is exposed to soda marketing campaigns at a young age then that would be considered a commercial determinant.”

Corporate Influence on Health Policy

While community health professionals study and learn more about commercial determinants, large corporations and industry associations are working concurrently to counter this scrutiny by taking actions to protect their bottom line. Typical methods that corporations use to influence public policy include government lobbying, marketing campaigns and litigation. Some corporations will go as far as conducting and promoting their own internal research regarding a health matter or funding external, third-party groups to speak on their behalf.

Examples of industries influencing public health are plentiful, including high-profile examples, such as the tobacco, cannabis and soda industries.

Preemption Bills and the Tobacco Industry

“Preemption is both a legal term and a political weapon,” Crosbie says. “By its pure definition, preemption is a legal way to transfer authority from a lower authority to a higher authority. For example, transferring authority from the local level to the state level.”

“Preemption was used as a political weapon by the tobacco companies in the 1980s to basically stop the diffusion of local-level policy making,” Crosbie says. In the early 1990s, many localities were introducing clean air policies, restricting public smoking in restaurants, shopping centers, hospitals and other areas. In response, the tobacco companies concentrated all of their efforts at the state level, with preemptive bills stating that localities shouldn’t be able to pass this type of progressive bill.

“The tobacco companies were basically trying to stop the momentum of these clean air laws, and they did just that,” Crosbie says.

Cannabis Legalization and Lobbying

With cannabis being legalized in several states and in many other countries, how it relates to health continues to be at the forefront of many public debates. This contentious topic has seen corporate lobbying both in favor and against legalization. With concerns about how cannabis legalization will affect profit margins, pharmaceutical and alcohol companies have typically lobbied against legalization.

Alternatively, the banking and finance industry supports legalization through its involvement with the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act. Current legislation makes it challenging for cannabis businesses to secure loans and complete other financial transactions. To ensure that cannabis businesses have access to adequate financial services, banking lobbyists and well-known financial institutions, such as Wells Fargo and PayPal, are pushing for the approval of the SAFE Banking Act.

Soda Nutrition and Taxation

“We are seeing a movement to pass sugar-sweetened beverage taxes since taxation policy can be used to drive down the consumption of unhealthy products,” Crosbie says. Sugar-sweetened beverages include a full spectrum of drinks, such as soda, energy drinks and juice.

The beverage industry is currently following the same strategies and tactics as the tobacco industry to intervene in this taxation policy. “California passed a state preemption bill that says no locality going forward can have a local taxation policy until 2030,” adds Crosbie.

“There’s a lot of research indicating that these drinks are unhealthy for humans, and they are linked to a number of diseases such as diabetes,” Crosbie says. “There is already evidence in Mexico, in Berkeley, and other localities, where these policies have passed, that consumption of these beverages has gone down.”

Although beverage taxation remains a priority for community health groups, another technique being employed to reduce sugar-sweetened beverage consumption is legislation that requires restaurants to provide healthy drink options, such as milk and water. Currently, California, Baltimore and Louisville have this type of legislation in place.

How Community Health Professionals Can Make a Difference in Public Health Policy

Community health professionals are entrusted with the responsibility to improve public health policy for Americans. Professionals in this field analyze and collect data about the genetic, social and commercial determinants of health in a specific community or population. The analysis results are then shared with health practitioners and educators. If professionals in this field have specific concerns regarding negative corporate influence on public health, they can voice their concerns by sharing information with community and government members.

Career Outlook for Community Health Professionals

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), health educators and community health workers earned a median annual salary of $46,080 in 2018. The BLS also expects employment in this field to increase by 16% between 2016 and 2016, which is much faster than the average for all occupations.

Learn More

The online Master of Public Health (MPH) in Public Health Practice from the University of Nevada, Reno equips students with advanced knowledge about the environmental, economic and sociological factors impacting communities right now. Learn how the MPH program can prepare you to make a positive impact on public health policy.


Suggested Readings

Issues in Advertising That Impact Public Health

Childhood Obesity as an Epidemic

University of Nevada, Reno Online Master of Public Health



Beverage Daily, “Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Taxes Drive Down Consumption, Meta-Analysis Shows”

Investopedia, SAFE Banking Act

The Sycamore Institute, “5 Ways Public Policy Impacts Health”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Health Educators and Community Health Workers

U.S. News & World Report, “Who’s Really Fighting Legal Weed”

World Health Organization, Health Policy

World Health Organization, Noncommunicable Diseases: The Slow Motion Disaster