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Businesses “should be regulated to protect health”

3 October 2008

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Businesses that sell products responsible for a huge numbers of deaths, illness and injury should be forced to achieve regulatory targets in order to reduce these undesired outcomes, a legal expert has claimed.

Stephen Sugarman, a Professor of Law from Berkeley University in California, believes that businesses will only act if their profits are threatened, so current voluntary agreements are insufficient.

Instead, he suggests letting governments tell businesses what outcomes they want from them and leaving them to work out how best to achieve regulatory targets.

This new approach, “performance-based regulation”, would focus directly on outcomes. For example, junk food sellers would have to make sure there were fewer obese schoolchildren, car manufacturers would have to reduce the number of fatal road crashes, and tobacco companies would be compelled to reducing smoking prevalence.

If companies do not achieve their goals they would face substantial charges. Given this scenario, it is probable that companies would become very creative in devising new inventions to tackle these problems, writes Professor Sugarman.

He argues that while public health leaders should accept business as an ally they should also wake up to the fact that voluntary cooperation will never achieve enough. He says: “Performance-based regulation occupies the middle ground — a third way. Let society set legally enforceable goals and then let enterprises loose to accomplish them.”

But Stig Pramming, Executive Director at the Oxford Health Alliance, argues that there is no guarantee that regulation will bring about behavioural change – that selling healthier snack food will not guarantee a fall in obesity levels and increasing bike lanes will not definitely change traffic patterns.

He maintains that businesses have changed — they may not be angels but they are increasingly transparent and cannot afford to neglect their corporate social responsibility, he adds.


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