Smoking, alcohol and ultra-processed foods kill millions in Europe, WHO report reveals

2.7 million people die each year for eating ultra-processed foods, drinking alcohol and smoking
2.7 million people die each year for eating ultra-processed foods, drinking alcohol and smoking - SimpleImages/Moment RF

Ultra-processed foods (UPFs), alcohol and smoking are killing two million people across Europe every year according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Its leaders blamed “powerful industries” for driving ill health and premature death, with fossil fuels also being blamed for a further 700,000 deaths each year.

It said the four industries combined were killing “more than 7,400 people every day” in a new report published on Wednesday, contributing to 24 per cent of all deaths, and about half of all heart disease and cancer deaths.

It comes as the Labour party has pledged to take forward the Government’s flagship proposal to ban smoking, as well as banning junk food adverts targeted at children, and, as of Tuesday, energy drink sales to under 16s.

In the report, WHO leaders called for “strict regulation to curb industry power” and for governments to drive forward health policies which are regularly “challenged, delayed, weakened or stopped” by companies.

It said tobacco, alcohol, UPF and fuel industries are wholly or partly responsible for 2.7 million deaths per year in Europe, and 19 million across the globe.

Breaking down the data, WHO said 1.15 million deaths per year in Europe are caused by smoking, 426,857 by alcohol, 117,290 by diets high in processed meats and 252,187 by diets high in salt.

These figures do not include deaths caused by obesity, high blood pressure, high blood sugar or high cholesterol level, all of which are linked to unhealthy diets, it added.

The report called on governments to recognise the tactics used by industry, such as blaming individuals, marketing, spreading disinformation, promotions on social media, lobbying and “subverting science” such as by funding research that promotes their goals.

However critics have called the research “half-baked Marxism”.

Christopher Snowdon, head of lifestyle economics at the free market think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs, said it was “far-Left political agitation masquerading as public health research”.

“The authors are explicitly opposed to the market economy and trade liberalisation and conclude that the solution lies in ‘rethinking capitalism’,” he said.

“They claim that consumers do not have capacity (time or resources) to make the ‘right choice’ and that the government should therefore make their choices for them using the full apparatus of the nanny state.

“It is a sad indictment of the WHO that it has allowed this half-baked Marxism to be published in its name.”

He said the 7,000 deaths per day figure was “absurd”.

“Products like alcohol, tobacco and salt have been used for thousands of years and would still be used if transnational corporations disappeared tomorrow. How each individual chooses to use them is entirely a matter for them.”

The WHO said the “primary interest of all major corporations is profit”, while having a large market share “often also translates into political power”.

It added: “Regardless of the product they sell, their (industry) interests do not align with either public health or the broader public interest.

“Any policy that could impact their sales and profits is therefore a threat, and they should play no role in the development of that policy.”

The report said that, with the exception of rules around tobacco, “global efforts to regulate harmful marketing have, at best, been underwhelming”.

Hans Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe, says 'Industries kill at least 7,000 every day'
Hans Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe, says 'Industries kill at least 7,000 every day' - SAM PANTHAKY/AFP

Dr Hans Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe, said: “Four industries kill at least 7,000 people in our region every day.

“The same large commercial entities block regulation that would protect the public from harmful products and marketing, and protect health policy from industry interference.

“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.

“These tactics threaten public health gains of the past century and prevent countries from reaching their health targets.”

Frank Vandenbroucke, Belgian deputy prime minister, who launched the study, said: “For too long we have considered risk factors as being mostly linked to individual choices.

“We need to re-frame the problem as a systemic problem, where policy has to counter ‘hyper-consumption environments’, restrict marketing, and stop interference in policy making.”