It's no surprise that public health issues such as smoking, drinking, obesity, mental health, and gambling are very complex. There's no one simple reason why someone gambles, or does drugs, or has an unhealthy diet - it's down to a variety of interconnected factors that can be individual, cultural, political, or something else. And certainly, the "unhealthy commodity industries" (UCIs) are a major factor, because they promote consumption of unhealthy products and behaviours. This article explores how UCIs downplay their own importance as a major contributing factor to public health issues by diverting attention from their role and using the concept of complexity to make public health efforts seem impossible.
After an extensive document analysis, the researchers found that tactics used by UCIs to dispute their role in public health problems were so similar that they appeared to all be using the same cross-industry "playbook". The arguments were framed to influence policy debates where one outcome might have been a restriction on sales of their product, whether it was alcohol, sugary soft drinks, or pokies. The arguments typically stated that regulation could not happen unless there was perfect evidence that the UCIs were a significant factor, and whatever the current level of evidence was, it was not perfect enough. The UCIs also commonly asserted that because the problems were complex, the solutions must also be complex, implying that a solution that dealt with only one aspect - for example, restrictions on gambling marketing during sporting events - wouldn't be worth the time or effort.
Ultimately the researchers hope that their study will help policymakers recognise when unhealthy commodity industry mouthpieces are trying to sabotage public health work by making it seem impossible. Complexity means we have to work harder to understand the issues and their causes, not give up and let the industries do as they wish.
Petticrew, M., Katikireddi, S. V., Knai, C., Cassidy, R., Maani Hessari, N., Thomas, J., & Weishaar, H. (2017). “Nothing can be done until everything is done”: the use of complexity arguments by food, beverage, alcohol and gambling industries. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 71(11), 1078. https://doi.org/10.1136/jech-2017-209710