Monday, November 29, 2010

Compromised public health ethics across the pond: Britain too!

Not long ago, I wrote of the “consumer alliance” between the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) and the Coca-Cola company (The AAFP, Coca-Cola, and Ethics: Serving the public interest?, August 20, 2010). In that piece, I also noted the close relationship between the American Dietetic Association (ADA) and Hershey’s. For the record, I did not believe that these were, um, healthful, for the American people. I cited the work of Howard Brody, who looked at the ethics of the conflict of interest specifically in the Coca-Cola/AAFP case (and yes, there is definitely a conflict of interest whether or not that conflict results in prejudicial outcomes).

It turns out that this kind of arrangement is not limited to the United States. Indeed, Dr Alex Scott-Samuel, Director of EQUAL (Equity in Health Research and Development Unit) in the Division of Public Health at theUniversity of Liverpool, brings our attention to an article in the British newspaper the Guardian. It reports that in the United Kingdom, the “…Department of Health is putting the fast food companies McDonald's and KFC and processed food and drink manufacturers such as PepsiCo, Kellogg's, Unilever, Mars and Diageo at the heart of writing government policy on obesity, alcohol and diet-related disease”, an apparently far more malignant development.

The potential advantage of a government-run national health system is that it can insure that health care is provided for everyone, as I have often lauded. The public health role, however, is one that is even more commonly a public one, even in the United States, but in the UK the influence of the Department of Health over public health policy is even greater than in the US because they do not have independent state governments with their own health departments and health policies. We are, of course, familiar with the “fox guarding the henhouse” method of making public policy, which seemed to have reached its apex in the GW Bush administration with the big oil companies writing energy policy. Or maybe not; recently we discovered from a recent NPR investigative report (we need more of those) that the noxious Arizona immigration law was actually written by the private, for-profit prison industry as a way to increase business! (“They even named it. They called it the 'Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act.’")

Is, then, the public’s health just another example of this type of “consumer alliance” (I really love this term!) – the British call them “responsibility deals”, more enigmatic, perhaps, but not more accurate – or is it another matter? Clearly, as demonstrated by the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, energy policy is critically related to health. And a law that makes it illegal for a person, a US citizen, to stop an offer humanitarian life-saving help to someone they find wandering and half-dead in the Arizona desert, not to mention imprisons and deports those who are not legally here, impacts on their health. Certainly these policies impact the rest of their lives.

Maybe it is because this is happening in the UK that makes it stand out. Maybe because some of us, myself included, have seen the UK and other European countries (and certainly there are many differences between European countries) as more focused on the health of their citizens. I know that there have been any number of problems with and criticisms of British health and social policy, including those of Julian Tudor Hart (“the inverse care law”[1], Medical Student Selection, December 14, 2008) and Sir Michael Marmot (the “Whitehall studies”, Health Outcomes: The interaction of class and health behaviors, May 9, 2010), and continued by current public health experts and scholars. I guess that the presence of the British National Health Service and its universal access have been so overwhelmingly positive in this regard that I have regarded such criticisms as those of people who “don’t know how good they have it”. Let me be clear: I never doubted that the concerns were valid, but rather that they may minimize the good things present in the system; in the same way I know that those in US cities with public hospitals are correct when they point to the underfunding, second class care, and inequities that they suffer, but at least, unlike where I live, they have public hospitals.

This initiative is, clearly, malignant. It is unquestionable “conflict of interest” for those whose interest is in selling more of their products, however unwholesome they may be, to be involved in the writing of public health policy around the use of, and advertisement of, those products. And, moreover, they will certainly ensure the insertion of policies that benefit themselves at the same time as they harm the public’s health. Note that it goes beyond food (and junk food); not only does the “food network to tackle diet and health problems includes processed food manufacturers, fast food companies,”, but “The alcohol responsibility deal network is chaired by the head of the lobby group the Wine and Spirit Trade Association.” Wow. One consumer advocate noted "This is the equivalent of putting the tobacco industry in charge of smoke-free spaces." It’s quite an achievement. Even Philip Morris couldn’t get to chair the cigarette control board!

Obviously, that this is occurring shortly after the Conservative Party has taken control of the British government is not a coincidence. It is part of a very successful strategy to transfer not all most, but virtually all, wealth and power to those who are already most wealthy and powerful. In the US, despite the control of the White House and both houses of Congress by the supposedly more progressive Democratic party, this consolidation is proceeding apace, clearly helped by Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United that essentially removed all limits on corporate contributions to political campaigns.

Having input from corporations that stand to benefit from legislation or policy is one thing, as long as it is balanced by input from consumer groups – and the welfare of the people is the final criterion for making a decision, not maximizing corporate profit. In this case, the case of the public’s health, the decision should be clear cut.

[1] Tudor Hart, Julian, “Three decades of the inverse care law”, Br Med J, 2000 Jan 1;320(7226):15-8.

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