by Jonathan Heller

In his farewell address, President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously warned Americans about the growing power of the military-industrial complex. More than 50 years later, Nicholas Freudenberg, Distinguished Professor of Public Health at City University of New York, has issued a warning no less grave about “the corporate consumption complex” – the interconnected web of corporations, financial institutions and marketers that, in the name of individual rights, promote and profit from our unhealthy habits.

In Lethal but Legal: Corporations, Consumption, and Protecting Public Health, Freudenberg argues that “In a global economy that focuses relentlessly on profit, enhancing the bottom line of a few hundred corporations . . . has become more important than realizing the potential for good health.” According to Mark Bittman of The New York Times, “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.”

To turn this destructive calculus around, Freudenberg told Bittman, “What we need 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.”

Instead of asking “Do people have the right to smoke?,” Freudenberg and Bittman agree, we should ask: “Do people have the right to breathe clean air?” Instead of “Do junk food companies have the right to market to children?” we should ask: “Do children have the right to a healthy diet?” Instead of “Do we have a right to bear arms?” we should ask: “Do we have the right to be safe in our streets and schools?”

Reframing the debate with these questions, Freudenberg says, has led to changes in the food and beverage, tobacco, alcohol, firearms, pharmaceutical and automotive industries.

But we must go further. The labor practices of many industries also have huge impacts on health. The unspoken assumption today is business owners have the right to run their businesses as they see fit. Neoliberalism proclaims that reducing government regulation is essential for a healthy economy. But don’t workers have the right to live healthy lives?

In the past, the answer has only sometimes been yes. The once-powerful alliance of labor and workplace safety advocates won a series of rights for workers, including the 40-hour week and weekends off, a minimum wage, and occupational health and safety standards. But the political pendulum has swung back in the direction of corporate power, and dangerously too far.

  • Minimum wage hasn’t kept up with inflation, so many people are working but not earning enough to escape poverty. Living in poverty has a huge impact on health and well being. Efforts to raise the minimum wage are in progress across the nation, and public health professionals should be supporting these efforts.
  • About 40% of U.S. workers – and 70% of restaurant workers – are not given paid time off for illness. Health Impact Assessments conducted by Human Impact Partners (HIP) on paid sick days legislation show clearly that workers and society as a whole benefit when workers take time off and avoid spreading infectious disease. Visits to emergency rooms also drop.
  • Wage theft – the illegal withholding of wages or the denial of benefits rightfully owed to an employee  – is a common occurrence among low-income workers. HIP has begun a Health Impact Assessment of wage theft in Los Angeles and are finding that employers stealing their workers’ income has significant negative affects on physical and mental health and well-being for families and children.
  • Both in the U.S. and abroad, too many business owners cut corners on worker safety to increase profit. The recent garment factory fires in Bangladesh and Pakistan that killed and injured hundreds of workers are a clear example.

What obligations do corporations have back to society and their workers? Should profits for owners be valued over everything else, including health?  The public health community should lend its support to campaigns that seek to ensure that corporations are not allowed to profit at the expense of workers. Asking those questions, and others, is a good start.

Jonathan Heller is co-director of Human Impact Partners, an Oakland, Calif., nonprofit that conducts community-based studies of the health and equity impacts of public policy.