Friday, January 11, 2019

Gangster capitalism and our health: In the US and in the World


There has been a lot written about capitalism. Karl Marx, for example, wrote a multi-volume study of it just about 150 years ago, and since then a lot of the writing has been about what he wrote, supportive and critical. There is no question that it has remained the dominant economic system in the world; it is the linchpin not only of Western “democracies” and totalitarian fascist states but also ostensibly Marxist governments like China. While capitalism has both its defenders and detractors, it is interesting to me that the defenders spend little time defending the amazingly deleterious effects that it has on the quality of life (and even existence of life!) of people, the environment, war, and (to the point of this blog) health.

The problem is that, in pursuit of profit, industries will do and have done almost anything, with no moral compass or conscience, and, worse, with no concern for future generations or the planet. Some of the most obvious and egregious examples in the US at this time include their (largely successful) lobbying of the current administration to roll back on rules to ensure clean air and water and the overall environment so that they (in this case, extraction industries like oil and mining) can further increase their unconscionable profits without worrying about the damage it does. So we have mining and extraction in and near our national parks (“near” is important; air and water do not respect boundaries!), scaling back of national monuments so extraction can take place, poisoning of the water through leaks in oil pipelines (such as Keystone), and poisoning of the air we breathe when fossil fuels are burned. Oh yeah, and the increase in global warming which has already permanently altered the climate and will eventually wipe out life on earth (starting with the lowest lying areas) if nuclear war doesn’t first.

Our health and safety is also constantly at risk from aggressive efforts by corporations to increase their profits. This can take the form of producing unsafe products either because it saves money (e.g., dangerous child toys) or costs a lot to not do (e.g., not having lead in our water or asbestos in talcum powder), or by making important and beneficial (and hopefully safe) medications unavailable to many people because of incredible price increases (for the tip of the iceberg, see “Epi-Pen® and Predatory Pricing: You thought our health system was designed for people’s health?, September 3, 2016). We of course know about the ongoing – and largely successful efforts – of the tobacco industry to increase their profits by promoting a product that kills 400,000 people a year in just the US (mainly from cancer and heart disease), including through promoting it to children (e.g., the cartoon character “Joe Camel” – see Fischer et al, “Brand Logo Recognition by Children Aged 3 to 6 Years: Mickey Mouse and Old Joe the Camel”, JAMA 1991;266(22):3145-3148, December 11, 1991).

One of the most vicious and insidious efforts to compromise our health in the interest of profit has been carried on for more than a half-century by the sugar industry. For decades, under the table, sugar producers funded scientific research into the negative effects of a high-fat diet while ignoring the almost-certainly more detrimental effects of a high-carbohydrate, especially simple carbohydrate – sugar – based diet. Soda pop became the national beverage with incredible impact on the rate of obesity, in the US and internationally. A 12-oz can of Coca-Cola® has 140 calories, so what about that 40oz fountain drink at the convenience store? A 2-liter bottle has 812 calories. That’s a lot. So most health professionals, like doctors, tell people to not drink it, or not very much of it. This is, however, competing against the messaging of the industry, which pushes it a lot, and gets the cooperation of many nutritionists through the use of – wait for it – money! I have written about the corruption (or conflict of interest, to put it nicely) of health organizations like the American Academy of Dietetics and Nutrition (AADN) and the American Academy of Family Physicians being funded by Coca-Cola® and other sugar purveyors and having their ads on their websites (The AAFP, Coca-Cola, and Ethics: Serving the public interest?, August 20, 2010). The ads are no longer there, but you can read about the AADN at the fooducate blog, and if you search sugar on the current AADN website, you will find some pieces on limiting sugar, but as many on the potential risks of artificial sweeteners (which, whatever your beliefs,  the FDA rules as safe) and fats.

Of course, as with the case of tobacco, efforts to limit the sugar market in the US (such as Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s failed attempt to limit the size of sugary sodas in NYC), have led the industry to branch out and increase its efforts to profit in the rest of the world, particularly the developing world. While many countries can be targeted, the biggest markets, China, India, and Mexico, have received special attention. The NY Times has an important exposĂ©  on January 9, 2019, ‘Research details how junk food companies influence China’s nutrition policy”, citing work published in BMJ (“Making China safe for Coke: how Coca-Cola shaped obesity science and policy in China”) and the Journal of Public Health Policy (Soda industry influence on obesity science and policy in China”) on the role of the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI):
…a worldwide organization with a Washington headquarters, funded by many of the biggest names in snack foods, including NestlĂ©, McDonald’s, Pepsi Co. and Yum! Brands as well as Coca-Cola. It has 17 branches, most of them in emerging economies like Mexico, India, South Africa and Brazil, and promotes itself as a bridge between scientists, government officials and multinational food companies.
But in China ILSI is so well-placed that it runs its operations from inside the government’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in Beijing. In fact, when asked to comment on the studies, the ministry emailed a statement not from a government official but from ILSI’s China director.

Thus China’s health policy, which almost entirely focuses on exercise like “Happy 10 minutes” (good for you!) and ignores the dangers of high-calorie sugar-laden foods for obesity (and there is excellent evidence that diet is probably about 80% of the issue, with exercise critical for the other 20%).

There are those who will argue that it is not capitalism itself, but “unfettered capitalism” that is the problem. There is a lot of truth to that. The blind pursuit of maximal profit with no attention at all to the negative impacts on the world around them is not a necessary part of any profit making endeavor. Indeed, the “Wealth of Nations” by Adam Smith cautions strongly against this sort of excess, and “the only responsibility of business is to make profit for its stockholders” guru Milton Friedman sort of assumed that they wouldn’t do it.

But they do, and “unfettered” – or corporate gangster capitalism – is what is running the world. And it is not good for our health.

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