How Corporate Power Plagues Public Health
How Corporate Power Plagues Public Health
Book Review: 'Lethal But Legal'

Consider the impact of these corporate decisions: alcohol ads that target underage and problem drinkers, car and gun makers consistently opposing safety features, and pharmaceutical companies failing to disclose critical safety data on popular drugs. 

According to Nicholas Freudenberg, a professor of public health and psychology at the City University of the New York School of Public Health and Hunter College, industry has far more influence on global health than scientists, policy makers, or even doctors.

Freudenberg’s new book “Lethal But Legal: Corporations, Consumption and Protecting Public Health” explores the techniques that corporations use to promote their products, protect their interests, and concentrate their power. 

The book focuses on six industries—pharmaceuticals, food and beverage, firearms, alcohol, automobiles, and tobacco—and looks at how their profit-driven decisions shape our lives.

Nanny Corporation

These six industries impact public health in different ways, but they all use similar strategies to advance their profit goals. One particularly successful technique is demonizing regulation.

Laws that aim to limit excessive consumption conjure the specter of a nanny state—a meddling government busybody that threatens our freedom of choice. But Freudenberg argues that far more damage comes from the nanny corporation, incessantly advocating indulgent and self-destructive behavior.

“We allow these companies to get away with this because of this notion of individual responsibility—that it’s people themselves or parents who are responsible,” he said. “But I think most parents would much prefer health professionals to be looking after their children [rather] than Coke and Pepsi and McDonald’s.”

“It’s the political power of these corporations that has undermined the ability of parents to protect their children’s health.”

Rise to Power

“Lethal But Legal” advocates a politically unpopular idea: strengthening government oversight. While no one wants big brother meddling in our personal affairs, Freudenberg argues that “only government has the mandate, the authority, and the resources to protect people from corporate excess.”

Throughout American history, government has sought to limit the harmful effects of corporate influence. When industry power swelled in the 1880s and 1920s, government grew in kind. 

“If you look at some of the speeches of Teddy Roosevelt, the Republican president, he was very clear in outlining the danger that corporations presented to wellbeing as well as to democracy,” Freudenberg said. “He thought it was the role of the government and his bully pulpit to speak out and mobilize people against corporations. It was in his time of office that Food and Drug Administration was created.”

Another wave of government action emerged in the 1960s with the consumer, environmental, and other movements. But according to Freudenberg, since the 1970s we’ve seen a fairly long arc of power tilting toward the industry side, where corporations wield an unprecedented sphere of influence.

“Especially since 1980 when Ronald Regan in his inaugural address said that government is the problem, not the solution, we’ve seen an undermining in the government’s role in protecting public health,” he said. “We need to restore a better balance.”

Corporate Overlords

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to restoring the industry/government balance is that both sides are tightly bound together.

McDonald’s is a prime example of this conflict of interest. Beyond the $2 billion per year spent on global marketing and brand building, McDonald’s Corp also meets privately with state legislators to discuss policy issues, and has staff members who sit on six federal government advisory committees in the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, and State. In addition to a massive lobbying effort, the fast food giant has made nearly $10 million in campaign contributions since 1989. 

Congressional contributions from McDonald’s jumped 360 percent following the 2010 Citizens United decision, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the government can’t stop corporations from contributing to election campaigns. According Freudenberg, McDonald’s funnels money to both sides of the aisle, ensuring that Congress is “a bipartisan force available to advance the company’s interests.”

The fallout of this massive influence is a significant contribution to “rising rates of diet-related diseases, unsustainable agricultural practices and environmental damage, lower wages, rising income inequality, and diminished democracy,” writes Freudenberg.

“McDonald’s demonstrates that’s what’s good for business may be bad for human well-being.” 

Blinding You with Science

Another technique corporations use to further their profit goals is science.

Today, the food industry consults with neuroscientists, developmental psychologists, and marketing specialists to exploit human vulnerabilities to sell more products.

Companies also employ scientists to protect their products from scrutiny and when they fund with University research, non-disclosure clauses allow corporations to censor unfavorable findings from publication. 

Corporate science is also used to suppress discoveries that are bad for business.

A case in point is that of Clair Patterson, the scientist who first revealed the harmful health effects associated with leaded gasoline in the 1960s. Patterson’s research eventually won out, but he had to fight against the prevailing wisdom of industry science for over 20 years to do so. 

To add insult to injury, it’s often public dollars that fund industry controlled studies.

“In many cases it’s the public that has paid for this science through our federal research grants,” Freudenberg said. “We’ve gone too far in giving corporations the right to use that science against the well being of people instead of to advance it.”

Strength in Unity 

Reading about the extent and abuse of industry power can be a bit depressing, but the book aims for optimism. 

“Lethal But Legal” champions grassroots efforts to counter corporate influence, such as campaigns to drive out alcohol advertising from urban areas and limit junk food marketing to children, and doctors’ groups that expressly distance themselves from pharmaceutical promotion. 

However, Freudenberg believes we need a more coordinated response to bring about significant change.

“My goal in writing the book is to encourage people who are working against the food industry, the tobacco industry, or the pharmaceutical industry to look a little deeper and identify some of the ways that we can join together with people who are working to reduce the negative impact of corporations on democracy and the environment and inequality,” he said.

“The good news is that there are many more of us than there are of them.”

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