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Disruptive Public Health & Corporate Influence

posted Feb 19, 2017, 11:57 AM by Ben Jane   [ updated Feb 20, 2017, 10:50 AM ]

Take an interest in the determinants of and potential solutions to ill health and you'll soon encounter a number of political and ethical issues. Research findings that threaten profits or jobs, dubious partnerships with large corporations or new research that threatens existing knowledge and beliefs. All are in some way disruptive to an existing status quo and all give us an insight into the complexities of how modern science works and it's subsequent impact in wider society.

This post is a collection of resources that have crossed my path in recent months and seem to complement each other (and I haven't had time during this mid-semester period to give them individual attention in the form of their own blogposts!).


1. Professor Hendryx vs. Big Coal - A Freakonomics podcast episode

What happens when a public-health researcher deep in coal country argues that mountaintop mining endangers the entire community? Find out here. 

An interview that explains the basics of public health epidemiology and how a community might respond to those findings.



2. John Arnold Made a Fortune at Enron. Now He’s Declared War on Bad Science
Reading this article was like that moment in The Usual Suspects when you realise that Keyser Soze was responsible for everything that had gone before. Brian Nosek's reproducibility projectJohn Ioannidis' work, Ben Goldacre's Open Prescribing project, and Nina Teicholz have all benefited from the patronage of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and this long article explains how these relationships all came about. John Arnold was a Wall St trader and after making a large amount of money took early retirement from the world of finance and set up a foundation with his wife that aims to disrupt the way that science traditionally interacts and contributes to society. 




3. Prof Stephen Blair told me "that's capitalism"
Last month I attended a conference in Cardiff and was lucky enough to see Prof. Steven N. Blair speak once again. Having seen him at the same conference three or four years ago I was keen to see how he would deal with the Coca-Cola issue that came to a head in 2015 in the New York Times.  

I sent the link to this article to my students prior to our attendance as I wanted them to understand any nuances or subtle mentions that might be made during the day and because above all, as a lecturer I strive to develop the skills and abilities in my students that are associated with critical analysis.

It became increasingly obvious that Prof. Blair was not going to mention anything about it in his presentation and in response to his contention that the only cause of obesity was widespread inactivity, and not dietary changes my students were becoming noticeably agitated, and I could see one of them frantically googling articles online; critical analysis personified. A very proud lecturer. 

Subsequently, one of my best students asked the Professor a question from the floor about the funding of research, specifically mentioning Coca-Cola and in response Prof. Blair was quite vocal and forthright. We also had a chat with him afterwards and in between his emphasis on the validity of his work (something that I wouldn't question and also emphasised this to my students) he said something that really stood out. We discussed the funding of research and the potential for bias and he said that that was just the way it was, "that's capitalism". I guess I was naive in expecting some form of epiphany on the professors part however the clarity with which his response was given was still a shock to me (see No. 5 below).



4. When Public Health Scientists get hacked
Mexico is an important market for the global food and drink brands and has been a battleground between many corporations and public health advocates. Free trade legislation such as NAFTA has greatly influenced the flow of products between the US and their South American neighbours and with less well developed public health legislation in place the global food brands have been accused of a more ruthless approach to the marketing of their products. In response, public health advocates are galvanising their work and attempting to advocate more vocally about the impact of these changes in the food systems and this week the New York Times published a story about how a number of public health advocates had been targeted by hackers in attempts to try and deter their efforts.  



5. Lethal but Legal by Nicholas Freudenberg
"In 1980, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously observed, "There is no alternative" to free market capitalism. To shake the belief that the status quo is inevitable and to pose credible alternatives will require challenging this ideological power of the corporate consumption complex" (Lethal but Legal, p125)

I really enjoyed this book which outlines the way in which six industries (food, tobacco, pharma, gun and auto) seek to influence our lifestyle choices and the solutions that are needed to face up to these challenges. 

“A superb, magnificently written, courageous, and compelling exposé of how corporations enrich themselves at the expense of public health—and how we can organize to counter corporate power and achieve a healthier and more sustainable food environment. This should be required reading for anyone who cares about promoting health, protecting democratic institutions, and achieving a more equitable and just society.”
–Marion Nestle, Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, New York University; author of Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health.






Click here to see a panel that includes Marion Nestle and Nicholas Freudenberg discussing the book