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Tobacco, alcohol, processed foods and fossil fuels ‘kill 2.7m a year in Europe’


Tobacco, alcohol, ultra-processed foods (UPFs) and fossil fuels kill 2.7 million people a year in Europe, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), which has called on governments to impose tougher regulation of health-harming products.

In a groundbreaking report , the WHO said powerful industries were driving ill-health and premature death by using “misleading” marketing and interfering in governments’ efforts to prevent killer diseases such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

The new report calculates that tobacco, fossil fuels, UPFs and alcohol are responsible for more than 7,400 deaths every day across Europe’s 53 states. Overall the four industries cause an estimated 2.7 million deaths annually in Europe, about a quarter (24.5%) of all mortality.

The UN health agency’s findings amount to an unprecedented attack on the huge damage major corporations and their products are inflicting on human health. The report describes how “big industry” uses overt and covert methods to boost their profits by delaying and derailing policies to improve population health.

“A small number of transnational corporations … wield significant power over the political and legal contexts in which they operate, and obstruct public interest regulations which could impact their profit margins,” the WHO said.

Dr Hans Henri P Kluge, the WHO regional director for Europe, said: “Industry tactics include exploitation of vulnerable people through targeted marketing strategies, misleading consumers, and making false claims about the benefits of their products or their environmental credentials.”

The tactics deployed by “major commercial industries” are undermining measures to reduce smoking, drinking and obesity, which are the biggest causes of avoidable ill-heath.

The figures follow 2023 research which found that alcohol, tobacco, processed food and beverages, and fossil fuels caused 19 million deaths a year globally, or 34% of all deaths.

The WHO analysis shows that all European countries are off-track to meet the UN’s sustainable development goals of halting the rise in obesity or cutting smoking among those aged 15 and over by 30%. The 53 countries between them consume more alcohol than any other region globally.

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Despite the health risks, only a minority of European countries have banned smoking in public places, while efforts to make harmful products less appealing through plain packaging, alcohol taxation and food labelling were also not widely implemented, the report noted.

“With the notable exception of tobacco marketing laws that have been adopted in many countries, global efforts to regulate harmful marketing have, at best, been underwhelming,” the report concludes.

“While legal measures regulating alcohol and unhealthy food marketing are in existence in several countries across the WHO European region and across the world, these are often narrow in scope, focused on specific media or settings, certain population groups or on specific marketing techniques, and therefore confer insufficient protection.”

The WHO estimates that tobacco accounts for more than 1 million deaths a year, 10% of all deaths in Europe. Nearly 600,000 [578,908] deaths are caused each year by fossil fuels (5% of all deaths), while alcohol causes more than 400,000 deaths a year [426,857]. And more than 350,000 people die each year from consuming too much processed meat, sugary drinks and fatty, salty food.

Launching the report, Frank Vandenbroucke, the Belgian deputy prime minister, said: “For too long we have considered risk factors as being mostly linked to individual choices. We need to reframe the problem as a systemic problem, where policy has to counter ‘hyper-consumption environments’, restrict marketing, and stop interference in policymaking.”

The report urges governments across Europe to impose much tougher regulation of how health-harming products are marketed, introduce curbs on monopolistic practices and lobbying, and ensure trade agreements and economic laws prioritise public health.

The World Cancer Research Fund urged people to follow a vegetarian diet more often and limit their drinking in order to reduce their risk of getting the disease.

“Our evidence shows that eating a variety of plant-based foods as well as wholegrains, fruit and pulses, and limiting your consumption of alcohol, are effective ways to reduce your risk of cancer,” said Kendra Chow, its policy and public affairs manager.

Dr Kawther Hashem, a lecturer in public health nutrition at Queen Mary University of London and the campaign lead at Action on Sugar, said the next UK government after the 4 July general election should compel food and drink manufacturers to reformulate their products.

Responding to the study, Rebeca Fernández, the director for food safety, research and innovation at FoodDrinkEurope, which represents the European food and drink industry, said: “To connect the consumption of processed foods with the tobacco and fossil fuel industries is irresponsible and outrageously misleading. We all need food – and we all need processed food.

“Unfortunately the WHO report does not acknowledge that there is no agreed definition of what ultra-processed foods are, let alone their impact on health.”

Ulrich Adam, the director general of spiritsEurope, which represents the spirits industry in Europe, also questioned WHO’s methodology, which he claimed “undermines” its credibility.

He added: “While there is more to be done to tackle the harmful use of alcohol in Europe, alcohol consumption has fallen by 10% since 2010, and deaths linked to alcohol have fallen by over 30% over the same period.”

Nathalie Darge, the director general of Tobacco Europe, which represents the three largest tobacco manufacturers, said: “Tobacco Europe and its members are committed to reducing the health impact of smoking in Europe by investing in innovative and potentially less harmful novel tobacco and nicotine products to support adult smokers considering changing their consumption patterns.

“This is a unique opportunity to limit the harm associated with smoking and contribute to the objectives of Europe’s Beating Cancer plan.”



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