Companies providing life and health insurance owned $1.9 billion worth of stock in the fast-food industry as of June 11, 2009, researchers reported online in the American Journal of Public Health.
The investments were in the five largest fast-food corporations -- Jack in the Box, McDonald's, Burger King, Yum! Brands (KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and others), and Wendy's/Arby's, according to J. Wesley Boyd of Harvard Medical School and Cambridge Health Alliance in Massachusetts and colleagues.
"The insurance industry, ostensibly, appears to be concerned about people's health and well-being," Boyd said.
But, he said, "If the insurance industry is willing to invest in products known to be harmful and/or kill people then, prima facie, this is not an industry that actually cares about health and well-being."
Although Boyd acknowledged that fast food can be consumed responsibly, he said the aggregate evidence points toward a negative effect on public health.
"We argue that insurers ought to be held to a higher standard of corporate responsibility," he and his co-authors wrote in their paper.
All of the study authors are members -- and two are co-founders -- of Physicians for a National Health Program, a nonprofit organization advocating for universal, single-payer national health insurance.
"PNHP opposes for-profit control, and especially corporate control, of the health system and favors democratic control, public administration, and single-payer financing," the organization's mission statement reads.
Boyd said that the passage of healthcare reform makes the issue of owning stock in fast-food companies especially important.
"The health insurance industry is going to have a much bigger stake in providing healthcare, and what we're doing in our paper is reminding people that [the industry's] primary interests are in earning money and generating profit, not in insuring people's health," he said.
Pauline Rosenau, a professor of management, policy, and community health at the University of Texas School of Public Health, said the investment strategy of these insurance companies is not ethical.
"They are placing themselves in a situation of substantial conflict of interest -- especially starting in 2014," she said.
"Starting in 2014, insurers will have an even greater incentive to encourage their customers to pursue healthy food choices," she continued. "However, this is only with respect to their own customers, not those insured by other companies. As long as insurers are largely private, for-profit entities, they are unlikely to identify with a public health orientation."
To determine the extent to which insurance companies invested in the fast-food industry, Boyd and his colleagues analyzed shareholder data from the Icarus database, which contains information from Securities and Exchange Commission filings and reports from news agencies.
Their data were "vetted during the peer-review process by outside referees," according to a spokesperson for the American Public Health Association, which publishes the American Journal of Public Health.
The $1.9 billion worth of stock in the five leading fast food companies represented 2.2 percent of the total market capitalization of those companies on June 11, 2009.