Sunday, 26 February 2012

Tobacco, other vested corporate interests and democracy

I've often wondered why opposition to the smoking ban is not more vociferous, and felt that had it been tried in the 1970s it would not have worked in the UK. I have wondered if other processes in society have isolated people from each other in ways that have made mass protests more difficult, or seem more pointless.

I found a copy of George Monbiot's 2000 book Captive State, which describes 'the corporate takeover of Britain'. His book tells of how a wide range of projects, including the Skye Bridge, has been achieved by big business interests crowding out the protests of local inhabitants. Corporations have paid for the planning and public presentation of building projects on behalf of local councils. Support for local development projects has been made conditional on accepting the Private Finance Initiative. This meant that building projects, including the upgrading of NHS hospitals, had to be planned so as to make money for the builders, rather than to save money for the people and the local council. The book is quite clear that New Labour from 1997 did nothing to stop the corporate takeover of Britain and much to encourage it – the PFI was, after all, their brainchild.

A chapter entitled 'Silent Science' talks about how corporate funding has affected the scientific research agenda. Of particular interest is the following:
As big business infiltrates the research agenda, ever wider zones of public enquiry are placed off limits. In 1999, the government published a White Paper on public health called Saving Lives: Our Healthier Nation. The only atmospheric pollution named in the report is radon. It also happens to be one of the only pollutants in Britain which does not result from the activities of large corporations: it is naturally occurring. The report warns us about the dangers of cancer resulting from 'exposure to radon gas in certain homes or excessive sunlight', but nuclear power stations are not mentioned, and nor are any other chemicals, even though the paper concedes that 'Pollutants in the atmosphere may cause cancer if inhaled or swallowed'. The language in which this warning is given is interesting: it creates the impression that breathing or ingesting pollution is something we can avoid. The paper informs us that the government hosted 'the largest ever Ministerial conference on environment and health in 1999. It fails to tell us that the links between cancer and industrial pollution were dropped from the agenda soon after the meeting began. [link added]
Isn't that interesting: although Monbiot does not mention smoking, he does point out that industrial pollutants are factored out of this discussion. The appendix of this document talks about tackling lifestyle factors, radon control and improved responses from the health service, as the way to improve public health – it is a clear prelude to present policies.

A few pages earlier we have this:
In December 1988, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals announced that the universities they ran would no longer take money for cancer research from the tobacco industry. The companies' backing, they had decided, 'is not likely to be viewed as disinterested and will consequently damage the university's standing and reputation'. It seems astonishing that they had been taking this money in the first place. But while this, the most controversial source of industrial funding, was discontinued, the business sponsorship of other areas of research has expanded. Why funding from the corporate sectors should be 'viewed as disinterested' and not likely to 'damage the university's standing and reputation' has never been satisfactorily explained by the vice-chancellors. But I have been unable to find a university anywhere in the United Kingdom which does not accept corporate money for research in which the companies involved have an immediate interest.
This view is reflected today, with much corporate funding going largely unnoticed, while the idea that tobacco should be allowed to fund cancer treatments gives rise to hysteria. I am no apologist for the tobacco industry but I feel bound to point out that their donations to cancer research, other than giving them corporate responsibility brownie points, cannot be said to contribute directly to their own commercial advancement. On the other hand, Monbiot describes the Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council's influence in university science, and in particular its aggressive stand in favour of genetic engineering. Its funding allows the recruitment of researchers  in biotechnology for major companies such as Glaxo and Unilever. Researchers are gagged, but effectively only if they want to rock the boat. The upshot is that the public interest becomes corporate interest, because the mega-corporations have the means to purchase it.

I am still not sure about Monbiot. He understands the dilemma that you can't control big business without running the risk of oppressing the powerless, but he is still trying to work out how it can be done. I feel that tobacco control bears many of the hallmarks of corporate influence on local life, including the contempt for local democracy implicit in arrangements like the Framework Convention on Tobacco and Health. One of the most important of these is blaming people for their health problems, when corporate interests are able to buy their way out of public scrutiny.

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