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Squeezed between St. Nicholas and Santa Claus

By Werner Soors
on December 9, 2021

In case you’ve never heard of the Commercial Determinants of Health (CDoH), here’s a short refresher. In times gone by, some of us hoped that the Social Determinants of Health (SDH) framework would bring “Health for All” a bit closer. That didn’t happen. We lost ourselves even more than before in lifestyle and risk factor bubbles. The recognition of the CDoH – loosely defined as ‘strategies and approaches used by the private sector to promote products and choices that are detrimental to health’ – provided new hope for concrete action. Some even saw it as an antidote for postmodern pluralists who ‘accept industry influence as business as usual’. Once we understand how corporate actors exert power, it was recently argued, this ‘power lens (…) illuminates opportunities to challenge or diminish this power’. Most recently, even a framework for measuring the CDoH was proposed.

So, when the World Health Organization announced its first webinar in a series on the CDoH, to ‘explain why they matter (…) and provide an introduction to action’, I had high expectations. In these days of consumerism, squeezed between the shopping craze of St. Nicholas and his copycat Santa Claus, I tend to rejoice even with small promises. They were not fulfilled. But then again, being retired I’m not part of their typical “target audience”.

Of course, Nick Freudenberg made some valid points, like the need for synergy among researchers and activists. After all, he’s been arguing for public action for decades and recently lead a nice effort to redefine the CDoH. As a moderator, distinguished equity scholar Fran Baum rightfully reminded speakers and audience of the parallel with the New Economic Order once claimed in Alma Ata. But overall, the webinar was one of boring repetitions of ‘think global – act local’ experiences. Not the kind of declarations or roadmaps a corporate actor would ever worry about. Even critical economist Jayati Ghosh proved unable to call plunder capitalism by its name, instead using euphemisms like ‘the international economic structure that incentivizes making profit over health’. Gosh.

Maybe civilized webinars aren’t what we need now. It might be high time for a more disruptive voice. Like the one from Mad Meg in a Caryl Churchill’s play: ‘Come on, we’re going where the evil come from and pay the bastards out’.

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