The Pitfalls of Ascribing Moral Agency to Corporations: Public Obligation and Political and Social Contexts in the Commercial Determinants of Health

Commercial Determinants of Health

Policy Points:

  • Government and civil society should be held more accountable for creating food and beverage regulatory policies rather than assigning moral agency to the food and beverage industry.
  • Nutrition policymaking institutions should ensure civil society’s ability to design regulatory policy.
  • Government policymaking institutions should be isolated from industry interference.

The rise of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) is a manifestation of a global economic system that currently prioritizes wealth creation over health creation. Many key problems and solutions lie outside the health sector. It is well established that commercial actors contribute to poor health through, for example, the production and marketing of harmful products such as calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods. Some also believe that industries have been predatory in nature (i.e., marketing their products to vulnerable populations, such as children and the poor).12 Commercial actors, through their industry representatives, have also been perceived as indirectly contributing to our poor health by seeking to shape the science (e.g., cherry-picking and revealing data that question the relationship between sugar consumption and ill health) used to question the need for soda taxes3; the regulatory environments, such as lobbying against marketing restrictions or soda taxes or working with the government to cosponsor health campaigns and/or engage in product self-regulation in turn generate government incentives and precedents not to pursue regulations.46 Commercial actors have also defended social norms, “weaponizing” issues such as defending individual liberties in the right to consume whichever products individuals desire in order to avoid regulations—deemed as “nanny state” intrusions—and to maximize future revenue.7


  1. Harris J, Graff S. Protecting young people from junk food advertising: impli-cations of psychological research for First Amendment law.Am J Public Health.2012;102(2):214-222.
  2. Fraser KT, Ilieva R, Johnson James C, et al. Use of environmental scan to as-sess density, content, and variation of predatory food and beverage marketingin New York City.Health Place. 2022;76:102843.
  3. Mariath AB, Bortoletto Martins AP. Sugary drinks taxation: industry’s lobby-ing strategies, practices and arguments in the Brazilian legislature.Public HealthNutr. 2022;25(1):170-179
  4. Chung A, Zorbas C, Riesenberg D, et al. Policies to restrict unhealthy food andbeverage advertising in outdoor spaces and on publicly owned assets: a scopingreview of the literature.Obes Rev. 2022;23(2):e13386.
  5. Gómez EJ.Junk Food Politics: How Beverage and Fast Food Industries are ReshapingEmerging Economies. Johns Hopkins University Press; 2023.
  6. Figueiredo AVA, Recine E, Monteiro R. Food risk regulation: the tensions of theBrazilian health surveillance system.Ciên Saúde Colet. 2017;22(7):2353-2366.
  7. Steele M, Mialon M, Browne S, Campbell N, Finucane F. Obesity, public healthethics and the nanny state.Ethics Med Public Health. 2021;19:100724.

Gómez EJ, Maani Nason, Galea S. The Pitfalls of Ascribing Moral Agency to Corporations: Public Obligation and Political and Social Contexts in the Commercial Determinants of Health. Milbank Q. 2024;102(1):1026.