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“Lethal But Legal”: Rethinking Our ‘Rights’ To Dangerous Behaviors

In the last few years, it’s become increasingly clear that food companies engineer hyperprocessed foods in ways precisely geared to most appeal to our tastes. This technologically advanced engineering is done, of course, with the goal of maximizing profits, regardless of the effects of the resulting foods on consumer health, natural resources, the environment or anything else.

But the issues go way beyond food, as the City University of New York professor Nicholas Freudenberg discusses in his new book, “Lethal but Legal: Corporations, Consumption, and Protecting Public Health.” 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 essentially 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 Freudenberg details how six industries — food and beverage, tobacco, alcohol, firearms, pharmaceutical and automotive — use pretty much the same playbook to defend the sales of health-threatening products. This playbook, largely developed 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, freedom and responsibility. 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 brains’ instinctual and learned responses, although we were eating those foods long before we realized that. It may be hidden (and borderline illegal), as when tobacco companies upped the nicotine quotient of tobacco. Sometimes, as Freudenberg points out, the appeals may be subtle: Knowing full well that S.U.V.’s were less safe and more environmentally damaging than standard cars, manufacturers nevertheless marketed them as safer, appealing to our “unconscious ‘reptilian instincts’ for survival and reproduction and to advertise S.U.V.’s as both protection against crime and unsafe drivers and as a means to escape from civilization.”

The problems are clear, but grouping these industries gives us a better way to look at the struggle of consumers, of ordinary people, to regain the upper hand. The issues of auto 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 antismoking 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 Freudenberg’s book are those that rephrase the discussion of rights and choice, because we need more than seatbelt and antismoking laws, more than a few policies nudging people toward better health. Until now (and, sadly, perhaps well into the future), corporations have been both more nimble and more flush with cash than the public health arms of government. “What we need,” 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 actually 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 Mexico, the second question has been answered positively. Shamefully, we have yet to take that step.) The question is not only, “Do we have a right to bear arms?” but also “Do we have the right to be safe in our streets and schools?” In short, says 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 maximize its return on investment by looking to sell to children or healthy adults in ways that will cause premature mortality? As Freudenberg says, “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.”

 

By: Mark Bittman, Contributing Op-Ed Writer, The New York Times, February 26, 2014

March 2, 2014 Posted by | Consumers, Public Health | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Soft Power Can Hurt”: Beneath The Hypocrisy, Putin Is Vulnerable; Here’s Where His Soft Spots Are

In dispatching troops to Ukraine, Russia has violated international law, flouted multiple treaty commitments, and set the stage for a European war. It has no casus belli, aside from an eccentric understanding of the domestic politics of a neighboring country. The Kremlin’s surreal warmongering is bad enough, and obviously demands a response from the European Union, the entity that, beyond Ukraine itself, is most immediately concerned. Ukraine borders on four European Union members, and its new government has made joining the EU its foreign policy priority.

Russian intervention in Ukraine is directed against the EU, which Moscow has now decided is a threat to its interests and indeed a civilizational challenge. President Putin’s global crusade against gays has become, during these last few weeks, a specific foreign policy doctrine directed against the EU. The Kremlin has made clear that control of Ukraine is one step towards the creation of a Eurasian Union, a rival organization to the EU which will reject European “decadence” in favor of a defense of Christian heterosexuality etc. For months press organs close to the Kremlin have referred to Europe as “Gayropa.”

How can Europe respond to the immediate problem of military intervention in Ukraine and the more fundamental political challenge to European values and achievements? It goes without saying that the EU cannot act alone. In 1994, the United States, Great Britain, and Russia guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial inviolability in exchange for Kiev’s agreement to destroy its stockpile of nuclear weapons. Now that Russia has violated this agreement and rejected American proposals to begin consultations based upon its premises, London and Washington are directly implicated in the crisis. Ukraine also borders four members of NATO. The United States is the relevant military power.

Yet the EU might hold stronger cards than the Russians think. Russian propaganda about depraved Europe conceals an intimate relationship. Tourism in the European Union is a safety valve for a large Russian middle class that takes its cues in fashion and pretty much everything else from European culture. Much of the Russian elite has sent its children to private schools in the European Union or Switzerland. Beyond that, since no Russian of any serious means trusts the Russian financial system, wealthy Russians park their wealth in European banks. In other words, the Russian social order depends upon the Europe that Russian propaganda mocks. And beneath hypocrisy, as usual, lies vulnerability.

Soft power can hurt. General restrictions on tourist visas, a few thousand travel bans, and a few dozen frozen accounts might make a real difference. If millions of urban Russians understood that invading Ukraine meant no summer vacation, they might have second thoughts. If the Russian elites understood that invading Ukraine meant dealing with their disaffected teenagers on an indefinite basis, they too might reconsider. If wealthy Russians understood that their accounts could be frozen, as has just happened to Ukrainian oligarchs, that might affect their calculations as well. These punishments might seem minor compared to the crime, but Putin is gambling that the EU will not do even this. These measures would have costs, of course. But the price of a military conflict in the middle of Europe would be far higher.

Of course, such steps, which can be taken immediately, would precede a general reconsideration of overall EU-Russian relations. The European Union is by far Russia’s most important trading partner, although the reverse is not the case. The EU relies upon Russia for natural gas and oil, and sends in return finished goods. Given that Russia has twice in recent years tried to use natural gas supplies to threaten the EU, and has begun to intervene militarily in a country across which the pipelines flow, now might be a good time to reconsider energy policy. A simple announcement of the intention to investigate Norwegian and American hydrocarbons might make a difference. Over the long run, of course, the EU has every incentive to develop fusion and other alternatives that would free it from its artificial dependence upon a bellicose petrol state.

Russian propaganda derides Europeans as fey and helpless, and we too often tend to agree. But the European Union does have instruments of influence. Its greatest power, of course, is its attractiveness to societies on its borders, such as Ukraine. But even where membership is not an option, and the EU faces unambiguous hostility, it can act. Russia’s very contempt for the European Union might force Europeans to undertake a more active foreign policy and to take responsibility for their neighborhood.

 

By: Timothy Snyder, The New Republic, March 1, 2014

March 2, 2014 Posted by | Foreign Policy, Russia, Ukraine | , , , , | Leave a comment

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