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Soft drinks have been linked to obesity.SHANNON STAPLETON/Reuters

Multinational food, drink and alcohol companies are using strategies similar to those employed by the tobacco industry to undermine public-health policies, health experts say.

In an international analysis of involvement by so-called "unhealthy commodity" companies in health policy-making, researchers from Australia, Britain, Brazil and elsewhere said self-regulation is failing and it is time the industry was regulated more stringently from outside.

The researchers said that through the aggressive marketing of ultra-processed food and drinks, multinational companies are now major drivers of the world's growing epidemic of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

Writing in The Lancet medical journal, the researchers cited industry documents they said revealed how companies seek to shape health legislation and avoid regulation.

This is done by "building financial and institutional relations" with health professionals, non-governmental organizations and health agencies, distorting research findings, and lobbying politicians to oppose health reforms, they said.

They cited analysis of published research that found systematic bias from industry funding: articles sponsored exclusively by food and drinks companies were between four and eight times more likely to have conclusions that favoured the companies than those not sponsored by them.

Responding to the study's criticisms, UNESDA, which represents the soft drink industry in Europe, said experts recognize that obesity has many causes including diet, lack of exercise, genetics and lack of nutritional knowledge.

It added that, within the EU, the European Commission had opted to take a "multi-stakeholder approach gathering governments, industry, the health-care community and civil society to work together to teach people how to … lead healthy, balanced lifestyles."

The researchers said, however, that their evidence shows this collaborative approach has failed. They recommended that firms should have no role in national policies on chronic diseases.