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Staff Spotlight: Juan Carballo and Gianella Severini

Juan Carballo (JC) and Gianella Severini (GS) are legal advisors for the Global Health Advocacy Incubator’s (GHAI’s) Obesity Prevention Program, with a focus on Latin America. They support partners in Colombia and Brazil on legal issues, specifically advising on strategy and litigation and drafting legislation.

What is your role at GHAI?

JC: We help draft legislation to ensure it complies with domestic and international legal obligations and that they are backed by scientific evidence.  We also support responses to legal challenges from the food and beverage industry.  We support legal actions either intended to push the government to enact effective public health measures or to change the behavior of the industry. This may also include assistance for legal issues that might arise from advocacy and communication efforts at a country level.

GS: I am a legal advisor for several projects (Tobacco Control, Resolve to Save Lives, and Obesity Prevention). I really enjoy working on all three of them. I especially enjoy working on healthy food policy because it challenges us as advocates to be more creative in our work. Given that we do not have an international legal framework, as we do with tobacco—which is covered by the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control—we need to pool our knowledge from other areas and to learn from experiences in different countries to see what worked and what didn’t.

What has been your proudest achievement?

JC: Facilitating cooperation among civil society organizations (CSOs) working on food issues to support court cases in Colombia and Mexico. That collaboration helped achieve litigation wins that made it clear CSOs have the right to disseminate public health information in Colombia, and challenged deceptive industry food labeling practices in Mexico.

Coming from tobacco control, what surprised you the most about the food policy advocacy work?

JC: I appreciated the opportunity to collaborate with organizations working on a variety of issues, such as child protection, human rights, consumer protection law, access to food and land, and education. At the same time, the resources and strengths being used by the food and beverage industry to fight effective public health measures have been more than I had expected, even coming from the world of tobacco control.

Given that you work on several public health programs, what is unique about the food policy advocacy work? What are similar things you face in each of the program areas?

GS: There are a lot of similarities. First, we work with many of the same advocates in the region. Also, these industries (tobacco, food and beverage) are all using similar tactics. Even though the products are really different, there are lots of parallels in how they lobby, advertise their products, provide misleading information about their products, and try to interfere in the regulation of their products. Also, when you work in the same countries on different programs, the political context doesn’t vary. So, knowing the political situation from the perspective of one program strengthens your work on the others. Moreover, the organization of mass media campaigns and even CSO capacity-building activities can be connected across the different public health lenses.

What is your favorite part about working with lawyers in the Latin America region?

JC: I really enjoy the collaboration within the network of lawyers who work on legal issues around food regulation. This network is just a few years old and includes many talented and hard-working lawyers focused on food-related legal issues in different countries in the region, and there is always willingness to work together. Perhaps it’s a common understanding of the industry’s strong push against the advancement of effective obesity prevention measures that has created a strong bond between the lawyers in the region.

GS: This year we are having our second legal workshop for lawyers working on obesity prevention in the Latin American region. It is really amazing to see all the work that is being done and how each organization continues to learn from the others and exchanges new ideas on different legal strategies, both for litigation and for legislation.

What can other regions learn from Latin America?

JC: Defining public health problems related to food as a human rights issue. In doing this, governments are entitled to advance effective public health measures AND they are obligated to do so. This framework opens the door to stronger connections with other social movements, such as access to water or the right to a healthy environment, among others.

GS: It also puts a spotlight on a group that is vulnerable but has specific protections under international human rights law: children. Overall, this perspective has strengthened our policy proposals.

What is something people do not know about you?

JC: I worked for years on environmental and human rights law issues prior to my public health legal work. This has helped me make connections between public health law and other fields of law. On a different note, while living in Washington, DC, I was a sports journalist for a weeklong professional tennis tournament, for a blog in Argentina. I interviewed the top ten players in the world, wrote daily reports, and recorded and edited videos of key matches. Pieces of that work were showcased on national TV channels in my home country, Argentina.

GS: I am a lawyer but I am also a journalist. I studied journalism when I finished my law degree. I have always thought that communication is key when working on legal issues. I thought it would complement my work and it has. Sometimes, as lawyers, we focus only on the legal impact of our work but we do not take into consideration the importance of knowing how to properly communicate what is happening legally. The multidisciplinary work we do at GHAI is proof that policy advocacy campaigns work well when they integrate all of these components.

What is the biggest legal/advocacy challenge you have faced in this work (and how did it get resolved)?

JC: The censorship imposed on one of our Colombia partners. Our partner developed a mass media campaign warning about the risks associated with regular consumption of soda and calling for a tax on those products. The censorship was quick, strong, and beyond imaginable. While greatly limiting our capacity to do advocacy work, this situation also demonstrated the strength of our allies who were fighting for public health. The censorship was resolved through intense advocacy, with intense legal and communication work from partners in Colombia, across Latin America, and at the global level. It included litigation from the censored organization and by another civil society organization that argued for the right of Colombian consumers to access  information.

GS: These actions were supported by many amicus briefs from organizations working on freedom of expression, human rights, and public health. There was also an effective communications effort, which led to wide coverage in local and international media. It ended with a strong decision from the Colombia Constitutional Court that ratified the right of civil society organizations to disseminate public health information.