Obesity epidemic is fuelled by ‘truth decay’

By Lisa Bero, 11 Oct 2018.

World Obesity Day isn’t the most auspicious occasion but with two-thirds of Australia’s adults and a quarter of its kids either overweight or obese it isn’t a day we can ignore.

Obesity has crept up on Australia over a number of years and is due to a number of factors. Not least among them is the pervasive influence the food industry has wielded over researchers, policy makers and consumers.

Science, including health research, has been particularly susceptible to “truth decay” — a term coined by the Rand Corporation thinktank to describe the rise in use of opinion over fact in political debates and public discourse.

Truth decay is characterised by increasing disagreement about facts and data, an increase in anecdotes to combat evidence and a decline in trust in experts.

This enables special interests to flood individuals with filtered information.

My work focuses on two key drivers related to evidence about health: industry funding for research and conflicts of interest.

I have looked at how multiple industries — tobacco, pharmaceutical, chemical and food — use similar tactics to influence available evidence about their products, and the public’s understanding of that evidence.

Corporate interests have a history of shaping how consumers understand science as it relates to products.

Often this is blatant, via funding of research that supports their position or product.

Food-industry sponsored research typically focuses on single nutrients rather than overall dietary patterns. Its findings enable food producers to market products containing those nutrients as healthy.

Such marketing efforts, backed by company-funded research, do not always serve the public’s best interests.

The artificial sweetener industry is one of many using these tactics to their advantage.

The overall evidence to date offers conflicting results about whether artificial sweeteners help people lose weight.

There is also some suggestion that long-term intake of artificial sweeteners may have adverse health impacts.

Industry-funded research tells a different story.

Our analysis of studies asking the question “Are artificial sweeteners associated with weight loss?” found the answer depends on who is funding the study.

More than three-quarters of studies funded by the artificial sweetener industry found the answer to be “yes”. Less than 10 per cent of the independently funded studies said artificial sweeteners resulted in weight loss.

One reason that the findings of industry funded studies are skewed to favour the sponsor is that only results favourable to the sponsor may be published.

For example, weight loss can be measured by actual weight, body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference, but results can be “cherry-picked” so only favourable measures are published.

Corporate interests have promoted truth decay by influencing the research agenda, funding individual studies that support their position and suppressing evidence that does not. They manipulate the body of evidence on health issues and impact debate on them.

Truth decay has allowed corporations to create confusion and cause controversy about the evidence needed to combat obesity, leading to decision paralysis.

Understanding the role of corporations and conflicts of interest in truth decay can inform our understanding of chronic diseases like obesity.

Obesity is the product of a complex system that includes powerful corporate actors.

Obesity cannot be addressed at the level of individual risk factors or behaviours — it must be tackled at the organisational and policy level because there are multiple actors and players involved.

Decision paralysis had contributed to our failure to develop a national obesity policy or a sugar tax policy.

To combat truth decay we need to promote independence, transparency, and objectivity in research related to obesity.

Consumers, clinicians, researchers, and policy makers need to be empowered to recognise when research has been hijacked by corporate interests, and to make decisions based on facts and not opinions.

Professor Lisa Bero is group lead of the Evidence, Policy and Influence Collaborative at the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre and from the Sydney Pharmacy School.

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