By Diana Guarnizo*
It is no secret that health advocates, particularly those who fight against the tobacco industry, have had to face aggressive, illegal, and corrupt tactics by the industries they fight. In 2009, a report by the World Health Organization revealed the eight areas of interference that are most commonly used by the tobacco industry to stop the efforts of anti-tobacco policies. These include attempts to delegitimize messages and scientific research, media manipulation, public relations, tactics to gain control over public agendas, lobbying, strategic use of grassroots groups or the artificial creation of grassroots movements, intimidation, and threats to professionals working on tobacco control policies.
However, no one would suspect that healthy food activists, who seek the implementation of policies that limit the consumption of food considered harmful, such as sugary drinks or junk food, also have to face such tactics. Other types of intimidation, such as the infiltration of communications and censorship, have become recurrent forms to stop the work of these defenders in Latin America.
Like anti-tobacco activists, healthy food activists are confronted by economic elites who fear that certain public policies will limit their economic performance and influence. However, instead of participating in the public debate with arguments and figures, these elites rely on illegal or, albeit legal, ethically reprehensible methods to carry out their agenda. The following are some of the forms of interference that healthy food activists have faced in the last year in Latin America.
Intercepts and Spyware
In 2014, Mexico approved a tax on sugary drinks that sought to reduce levels of obesity, one of the greatest in the world and with the highest per capita consumption of these beverages. Recently the New York Times published that just when a possible increase for this tax was being debated in Congress last year, one of the academics at the National Institute of Public Health, as well as the directors of organizations like the Power of the Consumer and the Mídetes Foundation, all organizations that supported this increase, were targets of cyber-attacks on their cell phones.
They all received text messages inviting them to click on a hyperlink through which spyware was installed on their cell phone. This program allowed copying messages, mailing lists, files, recording images and voice in real time, and even knowing the person’s location.
In 2016, the possibility of imposing a similar tax to these beverages was discussed in Colombia. Educating Consumers, an organization recognized for their work in the creation of taxes and healthy public policies in favor of healthy food consumption, issued a television commercial showing the amount of sugar in certain drinks. The commercial was sued before the Superintendency of Industry and Commerce for “misleading advertising.” The Superintendency maintained that the commercial did not have “scientific or medical support” to support the veracity of its claims. This, despite the fact that the scientific evidence showing the amount of sugar in these drinks, as well as its health consequences, is widely known and was exposed by the organization in other documents before this entity. The Superintendency ordered Educating Consumers to stop playing the commercial immediately, at the same time as Congress debated the possibility of the tax. The agency also ordered that any other advertising piece that the organization wished to show and that had the words “sugary drinks” in it had to be sent to the Superintendency for “prior control”.
Infographic part of a campaign to inform the public about the sugar content of different sodas. Photo by: Alianza por la Salud
The Superintendency of Industry and Commerce of Colombia is the entity in charge of regulating and ensuring that the regulations on consumer rights are complied with. Although the Superintendency has the power to receive and prosecute complaints about “misleading advertising” it is surprising that the Superintendency acted, not to defend consumers, but to favor the industry by imposing a sanction as strict as the withdrawal of a commercial.
In addition, the fact that it required a previous referral of all the communicative contents related to this subject could constitute a case of prior censorship. Prior censorship, which consists of the prohibition or approval of a communicative material prior to its issuance, is prohibited in Colombia. This case was listed by the Freedom of Press Foundation as one of the most important cases of censorship in Colombia in 2016.
A fact that also draws attention to this case is that the complaint about alleged misleading advertising was filed by a lawyer who served as a former Superintendent. Although in Colombia it is legal for former civil servants to litigate in favor of private interests, and it is foreseeable that industries seek the best legal advice possible to defend their interests, it is ethically reprehensible, and even constitutes a possible conflict of interest when someone who formerly had a duty to protect the rights of consumers then works to defend the interests of the industry or vice versa.
The State has a duty to protect all citizens and interest groups from any attack on their rights, as well as to ensure a safe space where different groups can present their ideas and discuss reasonably free from interference. This balance is broken when the state allows powerful and economically strong groups to use illegal, corrupt or unethical means to favor their interests. Health activists should have the same protection in their rights to privacy, security, and access to an independent judicial body as other citizens. Moreover, as long as health activists are a weaker party without economic power or political influence, the State should offer strengthened protection that allows them to participate in the public debate without fear or pressure.
*Diana Guarnizo is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia).