Volume 36

Remedying Conflict of Interest Issues in Public Health Bodies

by Conor Bigley

Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) account for a majority of worldwide annual deaths. Common NCDs like heart disease, cancer, chronic respiratory dis- ease, and diabetes cause decreased quality of life and premature deaths. The CDC states that 696,547 Americans died from heart disease in 2021, making it the leading cause of death in a year marked by the COVID-19 pandemic. Other NCDs are associated with consumptive habits, including unhealthy food, alcohol, and tobacco, are cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases, and diabetes. These diseases accounted for more than 850,000 deaths. In the United States, risk factors like alcohol and tobacco consumption and unhealthy diets are major contributors to the development of these diseases. Government response to these issues beyond tobacco have taken on some of the characteristics of its confrontation with the tobacco industry—public health studies, product bans, and labeling requirements. However, food, a necessity, presents additional issues for governmental regulation. Research into the nutritional value of certain foods, regulation of advertising, and requiring producers of processed foods to label unhealthy ingredients prominently all provide a promising and important avenue for improving public health through nutrition. This paper will focus on the legal ethics implications of these government efforts to combat diseases and how conflicts of interest within research and regulatory entities complicate that effort. This paper will address conflict of interest issues in the context of US govern- mental bodies that conduct research and regulatory operations related to the food and beverage industry. It will illustrate this problem through case studies of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and then propose solutions for strengthening the Model Rules of Professional Conduct (“Model Rules”) or internal institutional standards of government bodies to address these ethical concerns.


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