David Courtwright on the Age of Addiction: How Bad Habits Become Big Business

Not sure I want to put the words “Wendy’s Breakfast Baconator” and “limbic capitalism” in the same sentence, but there you go.

Have that for breakfast.

We live in an age of addiction, from compulsive gaming and shopping to binge eating and opioid abuse. Sugar can be as habit-forming as cocaine and social media apps are hooking our kids. 

But what can we do to resist temptations that rewire our brains? 

Nothing, unless we understand the history and character of the global corporations that create and cater to our bad habits.

That’s the take of David Courtwright in his book The Age of Addiction: How Bad Habits Become Big Business (Harvard University Press, 2019).

The book chronicles the triumph of what Courtwright calls “limbic capitalism,” the growing network of corporations targeting the brain pathways responsible for feeling, motivation, and long-term memory. 

“Limbic refers to the brain region that is responsible for pleasure, motivation, long term memory. It is essential for survival,” Courtwright told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last month. “But paradoxically, other people can capture your limbic system and make it work against you. Limbic capitalism hurts us by undermining our appetite control. That’s the heart of the matter.”

“And they are not just targeting you in general, or your brain in general. They are targeting a very specific part of your brain that is tied into memory, learning and motivation. Many people refer to addiction as pathological learning. I like that phrase. That’s also what I meant when I said addiction is engineered.”  

“How do you foster these forms of pathological learning in individuals so that you can recruit a large group of heavy consumers who will continue to purchase your products for years?”

Would you say that the public health campaign to control tobacco over the past twenty years was a public victory over limbic capitalism?

“Yes. In fact the last chapter of the book deals with the question – what can we do about limbic capitalism? I asked friends and colleagues to read the manuscript. Several of them were really bummed out by the manuscript. They thought that the tone was very pessimistic and that I needed to write a last chapter on how to come to terms with this.”

“There is no denying that limbic capitalist enterprises are very powerful forces. They had an impact on the public health of the world. There is a calculation in the book to the effect that for every person who dies from an act of war or homicide, there are approximately thirty people who die from overeating or smoking or drinking too much.”

“I wasn’t as pessimistic as my readers. I do think you can do something about it. And the campaign against multinational tobacco, which first made progress in industrialized countries with relatively highly educated populations, and then it became a truly global campaign, is a great example of how you can fight back.”

“The campaign against Juul is another example. People aren’t stupid. They can see how these companies were manipulating especially younger consumers. And often it’s not always a legal or policy response. Ridicule is one of the most powerful weapons you can use against corporations that are systematically trying to inculcate bad habits in young people.”

Wendy’s is running an ad on the NFL playoff TV games for its Breakfast Baconator. And it’s oozing sensuality. Obesity is a serious public health threat. How would you deal with ads for the Breakfast Baconator? 

“There are certain activities where you have to be a consumer. There are things that consumers can do without. Nobody ever has to take heroin or an opioid unless they are in an end of life situation in hospice.” 

“But other things like smartphones, or internet connectivity – you cannot lead a professional life without these things.”

But you can live a professional life without a Breakfast Baconator.

“Once you have developed the habit of compulsive overeating, you still have to eat. These ads for hyperpalatable foods become cues that could lead to relapse. And you are always going to have to deal with them.” 

“This is a hard one. I don’t think there is anything wrong with somebody enjoying a hamburger. I don’t think there is anything wrong going to a restaurant and having a delicious meal. But sometimes, you have a conjunction of social forces where, for example, people live in food deserts. And many of the food outlets in those deserts are fast food outlets. And they are constantly running ads that have the foods lit just so. And they are glistening.”

“I have spent a lot of time studying advertising archives. And you wouldn’t believe the amount of attention that is paid to getting those foods to look a certain way on that television screen while you are watching your football game.”

There is no counter public health advertisement on these NFL playoff football games about the consequences of these junk foods.

“A good public policy is to create a counter narrative through public service announcements. That’s one thing to do. When I watch a football game, I’m fascinated by these ads, but I’m not tempted by them.” 

“But some people are prone to food addiction, some to alcohol addiction, some to other kinds of addictions – gambling and so on. There is some overlap among these behaviors, which are tied to certain personality types and sometimes mental health issues like depression and anxiety. “

“Corporations are not gods going after individuals. They are interested in numbers. They are throwing their baited hooks into a well stocked pond. And they know that a lot of people will respond to those advertisements, especially during a football game, where there are cultural norms that say – it’s okay to overeat during a football game. They have picked the perfect time to run an ad for a pizza or a burger. They are very clever. And one result of that cleverness is a country in which the majority of adults are overweight and a significant minority have developed compulsive overeating behavior. And it leads to serious public health consequences.”

You end your book this way: “You asked – what should we do. The answer is that, in politics as in life, we should be against excess.”

Is the problem limbic capitalism, or is it us?

“Limbic capitalism exploits something we all have – our limbic system. I have had people on the left ask it in a different way – is it limbic capitalism or is it just capitalism?”

“There are many examples of relatively beneficent forms of trade. It’s just that some products and services are inherently more problematic than others.” 

“You don’t want a free market in methamphetamines or opiates for the same reason that you don’t want a free market in plutonium. There are products and services that just cry out for regulation. And we got that regulation in the late 19th and early 20th century in many societies. But there was a very effective counter offensive in the mid to late 20th century so that commercialized vice came roaring back. And now we are living with the consequences.”

And that is a good question – is it limbic capitalism or is it capitalism? 

But I was asking another question – is it limbic capitalism or is it us?

“Some people are more susceptible, for reasons of genetics, education, social circumstances, cultural clues. There are a half a dozen reasons why some people are likely to go for these particular appeals than others.” 

“Think of society as a big cereal bowl with bits of alphabet cereal. Some people are A for average susceptibility. Some people are H for high susceptibility. And some people are L for low susceptibility. There is no us. In any human population, there are individuals who are far more likely to succumb to these commercial appeals. And their vulnerabilities may be different. Somebody who is highly susceptible to cannabis or to opioids or to some other drug may be relatively impervious to other commercial temptations.” 

“The corporations don’t care about that. They care about their bottom lines. And as long as they can recruit enough new users to replace the ones they are losing and keep those people consuming at a relatively high level, they are going to make money.”

“It is like purchasing a lifetime annuity once you get one of these new heavy consumers.’

[For the complete q/a format Interview with David Courtwright, see 35 Corporate Crime Reporter 4(12), Monday January 25, 2021, print edition only.]

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