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Ultra-Processed Foods and Alcohol Contribute to 2.7 Million Deaths in Europe a Year, Says WHO

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Ultra-processed foods (UPFs), alcohol, tobacco and fossil fuels are killing 2.7 million Europeans a year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

In a new report, the health organization calls on governments to combat the lobbying and commercial influence of such “harmful” industries to protect the health of future generations.

WHO’s next target

The WHO calculates that four major commercial products – alcohol, tobacco, UPFs and fossil fuels – cause an estimated 2.7 million deaths annually (7,400 deaths daily) in Europe. This proportion amounts to nearly a quarter (24.5%) of all deaths in the region, on average.

During 2021, the WHO estimates that 1,151,575 deaths (10.37%) in Europe could be attributed to tobacco; 578,908 deaths (5.21%) could be attributed to fossil fuel pollution; 426,857 deaths (3.84%) were associated with alcohol; 391,139 (3.52%) deaths were linked to diets high in processed meats, sodium, sugary beverages and trans fatty acids found in UPFs.

UPFs are loosely defined as foods made from “industrial formulations” of food products, typically mass-produced, containing high levels of salt and sugar and low levels of vital nutrients. Examples include frozen pizzas, sugary sodas, packaged popcorn and ice creams.

Globally, the WHO says tobacco, fossil fuels, alcohol and UPFs contribute to 33% of total deaths and 41% of non-communicable disease deaths.

These figures don’t include deaths caused by obesity, high blood pressure, high blood sugar or high cholesterol level – all of which are also linked to unhealthy diets, the WHO says.

In its report, the UN health agency places much of the blame for this mortality on large international corporations that produce these goods and downplay their harm with lobbying and marketing – a trick, the WHO says, right out of the tobacco industry playbook.

“Resistance from industry to change that could be health-promoting has also grown more sophisticated over time,” the report reads. “Earlier efforts were exemplified by the tobacco industry denying that nicotine was addictive or that there was no evidence that tobacco was harmful to health. The adoption of similar strategies across multiple industries highlights the commonality of the playbook being used by commercial sectors to privilege profit generation even at the expense of health.”

“By doing this,” the report says, “the commercial actors harming human and planetary health are largely able to externalize the costs of the harm they cause, incentivizing further harm: a system problem,” the authors write. “This must urgently be addressed if we are to improve health in the long-term.”

Due in part to corporate pressures, the authors say, all European countries are predicted to fall short of the UN’s sustainable development goals of halting the rise in obesity and cutting smoking among those aged 15 and over by 30%.

Combined, the 53 recognized European countries also consume more alcohol than any other region globally.

What’s the solution, then, to this saturation of harmful substances? The report recommends public health actors start by prioritizing health and well-being over money.

“Public health actors should build common cause with emerging thought in economics – an economics based on thriving in the biosphere and finding a safe and just space for humanity,” the report concludes. “This might mean that we go beyond traditional metrics of productivity and profit, emphasizing well-being over monetary return on investment.”

Other recommendations include exposing dubious industry tactics, such as rebranding inappropriate “harm reduction” strategies as “harm perpetuation” and addressing monopolistic practices and tax avoidance.