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Nick Freudenberg on the Corporation the Individual and Public Health

The mainstream focus in the public health community is on individual behavior. Get individuals to stop smoking, stop eating junk foods, stop abusing alcohol – and public health will improve.

Nicholas Freudenberg
CUNY School of Public Health

But a growing minority is challenging the status quo. They say – corporations are at the center of our public health crisis. And to improve public health, we need to focus on the corporation.

Nick Freudenberg is in the lead of that growing minority. Freudenberg is Distinguished Professor of Public Health at City University of New York School of Public Health and Director of the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute.

He’s the author of Lethal But Legal: Corporations, Consumption, and Protecting Public Health (Oxford University Press, 2014). He also has a web site that focuses on the issue of corporations and health – corporationsandhealth.org.

“Individuals decide what they put in their mouth and what they smoke, whether they click the seatbelt or not,” Freudenberg told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week. “But the way I think about it is that health, and especially public health, is a community responsibility. And yes, individuals have an obligation to protect their health. But corporations also have a responsibility. And in a decent society, healthy choices ought to be easy choices.”

“But the reality is, in this society, and I think this is increasingly true over the last 20 or 30 years, unhealthy choices have become much easier because unhealthy commodities like high fat, high salt, high sugar food, alcohol, tobacco are really ubiquitous. They are in the convenience stores and gas stations.”

“And so it’s much easier in most places in this country to find food or products that are going to make you sick. And that isn’t the way a decent society protects the well being of its residents and citizens.”

“We do need a different ethic. A decent society looks out for the well being of its people and does not enable corporations or governments for that matter to endanger public well being, by really aggressively promoting unhealthy choices.”

“The alternative isn’t prohibition of alcohol, tobacco or unhealthy food. But if there were a level playing field, people could make informed choices, and societies, communities, families and institutions could reinforce those choices.”

“Let’s look at an example from the 1960s. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said that TV stations, because they were public airwaves, had an obligation to present both sides of the story on issues of public controversy.”

“And the FCC interpreted that to mean that television stations had an obligation to give equal time to anti-tobacco control advocates. And so for a period of about a year, the American Cancer Society and other health organizations did very aggressive anti-tobacco organizing and they aired TV commercials.”

“And in fact those anti-tobacco health advertisements were so effective that the tobacco industry voluntarily withdrew TV advertising, rather than to have people exposed to the anti-tobacco commercials.”

“That’s an example of what happens when you level the playing field, when government levels the playing field. And if we were to apply that principle to unhealthy food advertising, to the advertising for prescription drugs which leads to increased and inappropriate use, to alcohol advertising – the unhealthy options that are promoted would become much less followed because people would have better access to information.”

Politics today is dominated by social issues, not by issues of corporate power. Why is that? Is it safer to talk about social issues?

“I think that’s absolutely true in mainstream politics, it is safer,” Freudenberg said. “I’m not sure I completely agree that corporate power is off the agenda in the political debates. There is talk about the pharmaceutical industry around the Green New Deal.”

“There are forces in our society that are beginning to claim a place on the political stage. They are saying – we do need to control corporate power.”

“But I agree that the mainstream voice – it is still taboo to make corporate power a central question in American politics.” 

“I don’t think we’re going to be successful in moving forward as a society, in improving democracy, in addressing climate change, in addressing inequality and improving public health, until we make corporate power a central political question.”

“It’s not like we don’t have examples in history. In the Progressive Era, in the 1960s – corporate power was very much a central question. And we need to figure out ways to put that back at the center of our political discourse.”

Chapter Five of your book is titled The Corporate Ideology of Consumption. Your political prescription would sort of up end the American way of life.

“There are the glimmerings of alternatives, more developed in some countries than in others, that depend much more on local and regional agriculture, that require wasting less, that require people choosing a diet that is fun, that supports their culture, but that isn’t the Big Mac, Big Guzzle approach to food.”

“We need to envision that change – in diet, in entertainment, in healthcare. And that’s a big task. But it took us a century to create this ideology of ever expanding consumption, what I call the ultra consumption. We need to find alternatives that are acceptable. And to be very clear – continuing down this path is putting us, our children and grandchildren at huge risk. And if we don’t want to leave that world to our children, then we’re going to need to come up with some alternatives.”

“Another reason why it’s so hard to think of alternatives, is that the corporate ideology is very much that there is no alternative, that the world we have today is the only world that’s possible. Maggie Thatcher said there is no alternative to contemporary capitalism. And we’ve come to believe that because we hear it so often.”

“I do a fair amount of public speaking about my book and people don’t disagree with the analysis, they don’t disagree that corporations are trying to get rich at the expense of our well being. What they have trouble with is believing that there’s anything you can do about it.”

“And that’s a deliberate effort on the part of corporations and their allies to make us believe that. Overcoming that belief is an important part of the discussions that we need to have – to have people believe that there are alternatives.”

“Again, as someone who came up in the 1960s, we really did believe, correctly or incorrectly, that there were alternatives to what we were seeing at that time. And a lot of people mobilized around that. Of course, the victories were partial. But we did see that a mobilized population could contribute to getting the U.S. out of Vietnam could contribute to ending legal segregation. That’s what makes me hopeful for this century.”

Prohibition didn’t work with alcohol. What would you do about the rise of alcohol abuse?

“There is a story I like to tell about a group in Philadelphia that fought a major tobacco company. The tobacco company wanted to introduce a new brand of cigarettes, called Uptown cigarettes. It was specifically marketed to African Americans.”

“This was in the early 1990s. And the folks in the black community in Philadelphia said – no, no, not in our community. And they changed the discourse. The tobacco company said that individuals have the right to decide whether they smoke or not.”

“They said – our community has the right to protect our health and our children’s health, and we say we don’t want this. And they were able to mobilize church groups, health professionals and government officials to join their fight.”

“They were successful in that the company decided not to introduce Uptown because they were afraid that in the early days of the internet, that this campaign would go viral and would become a national campaign. And so they decided not to introduce it.”

“And that’s a small victory by changing the frame and emphasizing the rights of individuals and families and communities to protect their health and to say no to the predatory marketing of unhealthy commodities. By doing that, they could protect their health.”

“There have been similar efforts around alcohol in several cities around the country, often led by black church groups. They are not advocating prohibition. They are saying — we as a community have a right to protect our community’s health. And sometimes that means saying no to tobacco or no to alcohol.”

“Similarly, Los Angeles banned fast food outlets from opening new facilities in downtown Los Angeles which had very high rates of obesity and diet related diseases.”

“And that was an example of a community saying that we have the right to protect our health.”

The title of our publication is Corporate Crime Reporter. The title of your book is Lethal but Legal. I guess what you’re saying is more harm is done by legal corporate behavior than by corporate crime? “There’s a connection between those two. That dividing line has changed over the last several decades and what we would, in the past have clearly considered crime, has become normalized, has become acceptable behavior – marketing unhealthy products, evading regulations, deregulating.”

“Public health researchers and advocates need to be concerned both about criminal behavior of corporations, but also about the practices that have come to be accepted as legal or where the laws aren’t enforced.”

“If you look at the overall burden on public health, it is the case that legal practices, advertising unhealthy products for example, are as harmful as the illegal practices of bribery or adulterating products or, you know, as in the case of Volkswagen and some other auto companies, actually evading the emissions control standards by installing devices to overcome those emission standards.”

[For the complete q/a format Interview with Nicholas Freudenberg, see page 33 Corporate Crime Reporter 28(10), Monday July 15, 2019, print edition only.]

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