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A new study reveals that the International Life Science Institute (ILSI) is an "industry front group," fighting regulations on sugary products, tobacco, and carcinogenic chemicals. (Photo: USAID Egypt/cc/flickr)

'Industry Front Group' Claims to Promote Public Health While Fighting Chemical and Food Safety Regulations, Study Finds

"Industry wolf disguised as scientific health charity."

Julia Conley

A international so-called science institute has for years embedded itself on public health panels run by the European Union and United Nations, only to work against the goals of such bodies by pushing the profit-focused agendas of the tobacco, pesticide, and other industries, according to a new study.

World Health Organization (WHO) consultant Simon Barquera tweeted Monday that it was "Black Monday" for the Washington, D.C.-based International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) after researchers at two universities and the U.S. Right to Know organization released a study showing that the group has received millions of dollars from the industries it's meant to protect consumers from.

According to researchers at Cambridge University and Bocconi University in Milan, top officials at ILSI often sit on international panels where government leaders discuss the negative impacts tobacco, sugary foods, and chemicals have on the public—but use their positions to push for lax regulations on those products.

ILSI "has been used by its corporate backers for years to counter public health policies," head researcher Sarah Steele told The Guardian.

"ILSI should be regarded as an industry group—a private body—and regulated as such, not as a body acting for the greater good," she added.

Steele and her team uncovered documents like a 2015 email from ILSI founder Alex Malaspina to executives at Coca-Cola, in which he called new sugar intake guidelines in the U.S. a "disaster" for the soft drink company.

The new rules could give way to a host of public health-focused regulations, Malaspina wrote, including taxes on sodas and new efforts to educate the public about limiting sugar consumption.

Ultimately, Malaspina said the guidelines could lead to "a great pressure from CDC and other agencies to force industry to start deducing drastically the sugar we add to processed foods and beverages."

Such concerns, critics said Monday, were incongruous for the head of an organization whose stated mission "is to provide science that improves human health and well-being and safeguards the environment."

The newly-released research, published in Globalization and Health, also shows how ILSI's conflicts of interest kept it from regulating companies like Monsanto, whose use of the carcinogenic chemical glyphosate in its weedkiller, Roundup, resulted in the product being banned in a number of European countries.

After ILSI Europe received more than $1 million from Monsanto and an affiliated company, Croplife International, the group's vice president chaired a U.N. panel which determined glyphosate was safe for humans.

According to The Guardian, ILSI representatives are still serving on panels which recommend how to regulate chemicals like glyphosate. One recent report called on European regulators to roll back its ban on the chemical, shifting to a model that allows products to remain on the market if they demonstrate a so-called "acceptable risk" to public health.

"While ILSI purports to be working for health and well-being of populations internationally," the researchers concluded, "we identified attempts by ILSI to influence individuals, professional guidance, and policy, both locally and internationally, while we saw evidence that its corporate members deploy it as a tool to promote their interests globally."

"Policy makers, international bodies, and the medical and research communities, should approach ILSI's work with caution, viewing it as industry funded and influenced," they added.

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