Two new books highlight when policy meets profit
As you gather with family and friends over the holidays, we encourage you to talk about the ways that industry sets the table by prioritizing corporate profits over public health. In the latest issue of Health Affairs, Prevention Institute’s Larry Cohen reviews two new books that take a hard look at the role of industry in driving poor health and injury: Deborah Cohen’s A Big Fat Crisis: The Hidden Forces Behind The Obesity Epidemic—And How We Can End It and Nicholas Freudenberg’s Lethal But Legal: Corporations, Consumption, And Protecting Public Health.
Read together, these two books take on the illusion of “choice,” shedding a light on industry’s public relations emphasis on personal responsibility and choice, while behind the scenes, industry hires experts to manipulate consumers -- young and old -- and doctor ingredients to be as addictive as possible. What does ‘consumer choice’ mean in this context? Larry turns to Deborah Cohen’s examination of the food and beverage industry to make the point that
[W]hile much of the discussion in public health is appropriately focused on how food is marketed to children, “we have to be just as worried about how advertising influences adults. Children may be more vulnerable to overt advertising messages, but adults are also highly impressionable.” Deborah Cohen explains that “we may not really believe it influences our choices…but it does.” This is essential because, while it’s easier to challenge the barrage of marketing to children, focusing only on the outcomes for children subtly reinforces the notion that adults have the opportunity to make their own decisions, regardless of their access to healthy food or what products are marketed to them, and, therefore, that the regulation of products and practices isn’t needed.
This situation cries out for policy change. Public health has a long, proud history of using policy to protect health. Freudenberg’s analysis of six industries that influence, and, in pursuit of profit, damage our health includes food, alcohol, tobacco, automobiles, guns, and pharmaceuticals, concluding that
“If recent changes in the business and political practices of a few dozen of the world’s largest food, tobacco, and alcohol corporations have accelerated these epidemics, then changing these practices has the potential to reverse these increases, ” and “Offering an alternative to corporate ideology…will require more than weaving together the evidence, ideas, and emotions, [it will require exposing] the vulnerabilities of the corporate consumption complex” and then confronting and dismantling that complex.
From gun control to junk food marketing to pharmaceutical regulation, corporate profits are distorting the policy playing field and hurting the public’s health. Shifting the public’s understanding of these issues to support common-sense public health policies is critical.
Click here to read the rest of Larry’s Health Affairs review.