A major research project led by the University of Bath has been funded to investigate the under-researched issue of how the commercial sector influences public health at the local level and what can be done to harness positive impacts and address the negative impacts. It brings together researchers, NGOs, public health professionals, local people and local government for the first time to do this.

Despite growing evidence that the commercial sector has major impacts on health and equity, how that influence occurs at a local level is poorly understood. While local businesses create jobs and contribute to the economy and health in positive ways, certain commercial actors have a disproportionate and negative impact on population health. Approximately 40% of chronic disease deaths globally are directly linked to just four products manufactured by transnational corporations – tobacco, ultra-processed foods, alcohol and fossil fuels. In parallel, representatives of these sectors frequently oppose interventions that local governments could implement to protect and improve health.

By using a systems approach to take a holistic view of the issues, the Population Health Improvement UK: Commercial Determinants of Health & Equity research team (also known as the “Health Hub”) will identify, implement and evaluate the population-level interventions most likely to improve health, wellbeing, and equity at scale. The team comprises researchers from the Universities of Bath, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Sheffield and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine plus partner organisations including the Association of Directors of Public Health, the Centre for Thriving Places and an NGO consortium made up of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), the Obesity Health Alliance (OHA) and the Alcohol Health Alliance (AHA).

Anna Gilmore, Professor of Public Health and Co-Director of the Centre for 21st Century Public Health, will lead the four-year project. She said: “We are delighted to have been awarded this funding. So many entirely preventable deaths occur each year linked to the products and practices of major corporations.

"Health-harming industries selling unhealthy food, tobacco, fossil fuels or alcohol are obvious examples - not only do these products cause huge harm but the corporations selling them actively oppose the interventions needed to prevent that harm. But all businesses can impact on health regardless of their product - for example through how they treat and pay their staff. Many make huge positive contributions to health and economies. This project will therefore seek to harness the positives and address the negatives in order to improve health, wellbeing and equity at scale.”

The involvement of the Association of Directors of Public Health (ADPH) means that the project will have a direct relationship with those responsible for public health at a local level.

Greg Fell, ADPH President, said: “Directors of Public Health (DsPH) are responsible for the health and wellbeing of communities across the UK and are increasingly concerned about the the influence health-harming industries have on our residents’ health. These industries spend billions on clever advertising and marketing campaigns, are highly skilled lobbyists and dedicate significant amounts of time and effort to influencing our environment.

“The result is that we are bombarded with attractive and affordable health-harming products while healthier options have become less affordable and accessible to large sections of the population.

“Many DsPH are already working in partnership at a local level to tackle these challenges and by bringing our members together to discuss and share their experiences, we are beginning to understand how to tackle these issues effectively. We are therefore incredibly excited to be participating in this project to share our knowledge and ensure that we develop an approach to working with business that promotes and protects the public’s health and wellbeing and prevents the unacceptable scale of disease and death currently being caused by health-harming products.”

The research cluster on CDOH and equity is one of four funded as part of the £35M Population Health Improvement UK scheme by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). This new national research network will bring together expertise and insight from across research, public health and community organisations.

Its aim is to find innovative and inclusive ways to improve the health of people, places and communities and reduce health inequalities through the development and evaluation of long-lasting and environmentally sustainable interventions.

The other three research clusters will focus on creating healthy urban spaces, supporting mental health and wellbeing, and enhancing modelling capabilities to address urgent policy and economic challenges.

On behalf of UKRI, Professor Patrick Chinnery, Executive Chair of MRC, said: “This new national research network will deliver a deep understanding of the mechanisms linking diverse risk factors to common diseases, accelerating the development of interventions.

“This will improve health and reduce health inequalities through creative and radical approaches.

“The £35m investment is a major component of UKRI’s Securing Better Health, Ageing and Wellbeing strategic theme, which targets a priority challenge through a portfolio of related investments which leverage research disciplines across UKRI.”