Feb 27, 2014

    Rethink 'rights' to dangerous choices

    IN THE last few years, it's become increasingly clear that food companies engineer hyperprocessed food in ways geared precisely to most appeal to our tastes.

    This technologically advanced engineering is done, of course, with the goal of maximising profits, regardless of the effects of the resulting food on consumer health, natural resources, the environment or anything else.

    But the issues go way beyond food, as City University of New York's Professor Nicholas Freudenberg discusses in his new book, Lethal But Legal: Corporations, Consumption, And Protecting Public Health.

    Prof Freudenberg's case is that the food industry is but one example of the threat to public health posed by what he calls "the corporate consumption complex", an alliance of corporations, banks, marketers and others that promote and benefit from unhealthy lifestyles.

    It sounds creepy; it is creepy. But it's also plain to see.

    Yes, it's unlikely there's a cabal that sits down and asks: "How can we kill more kids tomorrow?"

    But Prof Freudenberg details how six industries - food and beverage, tobacco, alcohol, firearms, pharmaceutical and auto - use pretty much the same playbook to defend the sales of health-threatening products.

    This playbook, developed largely by the tobacco industry, disregards human health and poses greater threats to our existence than any communicable disease you can name.

    All of these industries work hard to defend our "right" - to smoke, feed our children junk, carry handguns and so on - as matters of choice and freedom. Their unified line is that anything that restricts those "rights" is un-American.

    Yet each industry, as it (mostly) legally can, designs products that are difficult to resist and sometimes addictive. This may be obvious, if only in retrospect: The food industry has created combinations that most appeal to our brain's instinctual and learnt responses.

    Sometimes, as Prof Freudenberg points out, the appeals may be subtle: Knowing full well that sport utility vehicles (SUVs) were less safe and more environmentally damaging than standard cars, manufacturers nevertheless marketed them as safer.

    The firms appealed to our "unconscious reptilian instincts for survival and reproduction, and advertised SUVs as both protection against crime and unsafe drivers, and as a means to escape from civilisation".

    The problems are clear, but grouping these industries gives us a better way to look at the struggle of consumers to regain the upper hand.

    The issues of car and gun safety; of drug, alcohol and tobacco addiction; and of hyperconsumption of unhealthy food are not as distinct as we've long believed; really, they're quite similar.

    For example, the argument for protecting people against marketers of junk food relies in part on the fact that anti-smoking regulations and seatbelt laws were initially attacked as robbing us of choice; now we know they're lifesavers.

    Thus, the most novel and interesting parts of Prof Freudenberg's book are those that rephrase the discussion of rights and choice.

    "What we need," Prof Freudenberg said to me, "is to return to the public sector the right to set health policy and to limit corporations' freedom to profit at the expense of public health."

    Redefining the argument may help us find strategies that can bring about change.

    The turning point in the tobacco wars was when the question changed from the industry's - "Do people have the right to smoke?" - to that of public health: "Do people have the right to breathe clean air?"

    Note that both questions are legitimate, but if you address the first (to which the answer is, of course, "yes") without asking the second (to which the answer is, of course, also "yes"), you miss an opportunity to convert the answer from one that leads to greater industry profits to one that has literally cut smoking rates in half.

    Similarly, we need to be asking not "Do junk food companies have the right to market to children?", but "Do children have the right to a healthy diet?"

    In short, said Prof Freudenberg: "The right to be healthy trumps the right of corporations to promote choices that lead to premature death and preventable illnesses.

    "Protecting public health is a fundamental government responsibility. A decent society should not allow food companies to convince children to buy food that's bad for them or to encourage a lifetime of unhealthy eating."

    Oddly, these are radical notions. But aren't they less "un-American" than allowing a company to maximise its return on investment by looking to sell to children or healthy adults in ways that will cause premature mortality?

    As Prof Freudenberg said, "shouldn't science and technology be used to improve human well-being, not to advance business goals that harm health?"

    Two other questions that can be answered "yes".


    The writer contributes op-ed pieces to The New York Times.