4-10 July 2014 #714

World Cup ads that make you sick

FIFA has a responsibility to ensure that the tournament’s viewers are not receiving a message that could make them sick.

LONDON – One billion people watched the opening match of the FIFA World Cup in São Paulo last month and hundreds of thousands will throng Brazil’s stadiums 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. For viewers, however, that is probably not a good thing.

One of FIFA’s partners, Budweiser, was accused of compelling Brazil’s government to overturn a national law banning the sale of alcohol inside football stadiums. After an uproar, FIFA said in a statement: ‘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 the convenience food giant Moy Park brings millions of dollars to the game. Promoting alcohol, sugary drinks, and fast food may mean massive profits for corporations, but it undermines the health of individuals and adds a costly burden on countries’ health-care systems.

Instead of focusing exclusively on alcohol’s potential to fuel violence inside stadiums, the media should be emphasising the damage that alcohol and processed foods are causing to the world’s population every day. Over the last decade, global soft-drink sales have doubled; per capita alcohol consumption has risen, and tobacco use has increased. Most of this growth is occurring in low- and middle-income countries, those least equipped to handle the health crisis.

Health experts have traditionally lumped diseases into two categories: communicable diseases, which are caused predominantly by infection, and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) – that is, everything else. Among the NCDs, four conditions contribute most to early death or disability: cardiovascular disease, chronic lung conditions, cancer, and diabetes. In 2010, these four conditions caused 47 per cent of all deaths, including nine million deaths in people under 60 years.

The over-consumption 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 current system does not empower the United Nations and other technical agencies concerned with health governance to confront the determinants of poor health effectively. Large corporations have resources, lobbying power, advertising budgets, networks, and supply chains of which the UN can only dream. While the WHO skimps by on $2 billion a year, the tobacco industry rakes in $35 billion in annual profits.

What steps can be taken to level the playing field? Consumers must be better informed about the long-term impact of sponsors’ products. When people raise their voices – say, to ban advertising for breast-milk substitutes or to demand access to life-saving drugs – big corporations often listen. Beyond being a key aspect of corporate social responsibility, curbing alcohol and junk food is in the long-term interest of corporations. Voluntary codes to limit sugar in soft drinks and reduce salt levels in processed foods are a positive step, but they are far from adequate.

Finally, every successful team needs a strong manager. International and national regulatory authorities must fill this role, setting and enforcing the rules of the game to protect the health of people worldwide.

The World Cup has a profound social impact, including on global health. FIFA has a responsibility to ensure that the tournament’s viewers are not receiving a message that could make them sick.

Kent Buse and Sarah Hawkes

Kent Buse is Chief of Political Affairs and Strategy, UNAIDS. Sarah Hawkes is Reader in Global Health at the Institute for Global Health, University College London.


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