Commentary: Teaching about Corporations and Health: Bringing Corporate Practices into Public Health Classrooms

Increasingly the decisions made in corporate boardrooms, executive offices and in advertising, law, public relations and lobbying firms shape population health in both developed and developing nations. The investment, product design, marketing, pricing and retail practices of the tobacco, food, alcohol, firearms, automobile, pharmaceutical, energy and other industries have contributed to the growing global burden of chronic diseases, injuries and pollution-associated illnesses and deaths. While a growing body of evidence examines the influences of corporate practices on health [1], for the most part the public health curriculum does not address this issue and most public health students do not learn about how corporations influence health and what public health professionals can do protect the public against harmful corporate practices or to encourage healthy ones.

In those places where the subject is considered, e.g., in occupational or environmental health courses or in the study of tobacco and health, usually faculty and students examine one exposure, industry or health outcome at a time, limiting the ability to identify generalizable intervention strategies. As a result, public health agencies often lack the capacity or tools to take on one of the most powerful – and remediable – social determinants of health.

In this commentary, I explore how academic public health programs can introduce concepts, competencies and skills that will help students to identify and analyze corporate influences on health and take action to encourage healthy and discourage unhealthy policies and practices.

Why teach about corporations and health in schools of public health?

In order to bring the subject of corporate induced disease into the curriculum of schools and programs in public health, proponents will first need to convince faculty, students, administrators and accrediting bodies that this subject is important. What arguments might persuade our colleagues to take on this topic?

First, as noted, evidence suggests that corporate induced diseases impose a substantial and growing burden of disease. (Here the term “corporate induced disease” is used to describe the burden of illness whose agents are industrial products or processes that are harmful to consumers who buy them, workers who work with them at their job, and community residents who are exposed to them in the ambient environment.[2] ) In the twentieth century, 100 million people died of tobacco-related causes and in the 21st century one billion people are expected to die as a result of tobacco use. Obesity, caused in part by the food industry’s relentless efforts to persuade people to eat more, is a growing cause of illness and death, especially of rising rates of diabetes. Other diseases are related to heavily promoted high fat, high salt, high sugar and low nutrient processed foods. The automobile industry contributes to injuries and deaths associated with accidents, air pollution and physical inactivity and the firearms industry produces and distributes products that contribute to homicide, suicide and gun injuries. The pharmaceutical industry over-promotes some dangerous products, like Vioxx, and prices some beneficial drugs others out of reach of patients who could benefit. In pursuing these lethal but usually legal activities, corporations are simply meeting their mandate to maximize profits for shareholders.

In other circumstances, corporations make positive contributions to population health by, for example, making healthy products both more available and affordable, providing workers with sufficient income to purchase food, housing and the other necessities of life, or by making philanthropic contributions. Only by empirical investigation can public health researchers identify those corporate practices associated with harm or benefit and suggest strategies to reduce the former or increase the latter. By preparing public health students to carry out such investigations, academic programs fulfill their basic mission of educating professionals who can assure population health.

A second argument for adding a focus on corporate-induced disease to the public health curriculum is that it opens new doors for intervention. Controlling special interests that threaten the health of the public has always been a public health priority. In a 1999 publication listing the ten great public health accomplishments of the twentieth century, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified five that required changing corporate practices: reducing the harm from tobacco, improving food safety, reducing automobile accidents, improving worker safety, and reducing deaths from coronary heart disease [3]. How can organized public health extend these accomplishments into this century? What are realistic goals for reducing the burden of corporate-induced chronic diseases, injuries, and pollution in the 21st century? Only by putting these questions at the center of our curriculum will public health programs graduate the professionals who can answer them.

More broadly, the study of corporate induced diseases can provide insights into pathways and mechanisms by which social factors influence health. In its 2003 report Who Will Keep the Public Healthy? [4], the Institute of Medicine called for the public health curriculum to put added emphasis on several concepts including systems thinking, ecological approaches to health, public health policy and law, public health ethics, public health biology and global health. Studying how governments and markets interact to shape patterns of disease, the biological and social pathways by which corporate practices become embodied into states of health, and the legal, political and other strategies that can be used to change corporate practices and policies that harm health provide opportunities for applying these new concepts and methods.

Finally, deeper study of corporate-induced diseases also offers the public health curriculum another opportunity to integrate the many disciplines that inform public health (e.g., law, engineering, economics, political science, medicine, sociology, anthropology and others), thus preparing students for the complexity of interdisciplinary study and intervention.

Convincing colleagues to bring the subject of corporate induced diseases into the public health curriculum will also require addressing their resistance to such a move. Some argue that consideration of corporate induced disease is too political, a diversion from our commitment to objective science. Moreover, assert these critics, critiquing social arrangements is not the role of public health professionals. But public health has always debated the influence of social and economic factors on health. By its definition, public health must consider the impact of political factors on health. Objecting to such investigations is like insisting that researchers on ocean tides cannot consider the influence of the moon.

And even if investigators bring their biases into their research, the methods they use have the potential to provide clear cut answers. Whether the vector for a particular disease is a mosquito or a tobacco company, the same methodologies can be used to study the pathways and distribution of the resulting illnesses and to plan and evaluate control strategies. As Brandt has recently described in his history of cigarettes [5], the objections to controlling tobacco resulted not from any lack of credible scientific evidence but from the political opposition of the tobacco industry. Scientists can apply their methods rigorously or sloppily but the role of corporate decisions in health and disease is no more nor less political than any other causal factor.

Another objection is that some analysts may bring an ideological bias to research on corporations and health – that their research seeks not to uncover the truth but to advance an anticorporate political agenda. But the scientific community has created a variety of mechanism to detect and reveal bias: replication of results, peer review, the requirement for plausible mechanisms of action, an accumulated weight of evidence, etc. These standard methods should be applied to research on corporations and health, whether it is sponsored and carried out by political activists, independent scientists or industry staff.

Another criticism of a focus on corporate-induced disease is that it insufficiently addresses the role of individual behavior. In this line of reasoning, to smoke tobacco, eat too much, drive carelessly, or consume unneeded or harmful medications is always at the most proximal level an individual choice. Focusing on upstream factors like advertising or pricing may play some distal role in disease causation but unless we can persuade individuals to act differently, our health problems will continue. This line of reasoning is particularly resonant in American culture and is also vociferously championed by business.

Some public health professionals agree that industry plays a significant role in shaping patterns of health and disease but believe that it is futile for public health workers to attempt to change as basic a feature of our social arrangement as free market dominance of the economic sphere. In this view, studying and seeking to change corporate practices is tilting at windmills and public health professionals and students should better spend their time engaged in more productive activities.

Finally, some public health faculty believe that our curriculum is already too crowded and perhaps fragmented. Adding one more topic to a 15 session course will simply push out other important concepts, they say. In this view, whatever the current clamor for new teaching on emergency preparedness, public health biology, informatics or corporate induced diseases, principled faculty should resist these topics du jour.

In summary, to succeed in introducing the subject of the corporate impact on health into the public health curriculum will require developing and articulating the epidemiological and other arguments that support this move and understanding and addressing our colleagues concerns about such a move.

What to teach about corporations and health?

Once faculty have made a decision to include the role of corporations in health as a topic within the public health curriculum, the question arises as to what specifically to teach. In Box 1, I suggest 10 key concepts to introduce. These suggestions are intended to spark discussion and debate – to elicit additional recommendations for priority concepts.

Box 1

Ten Key Concepts about
Corporations and Health

1. Corporations and their practices can be considered as vectors of 
disease. (e.g., the tobacco, alcohol, and food industries 
distribute and promote pathogenic products) and as 
social determinants of health.

2. Decisions made in corporate boardrooms and executive offices 
have a profound influence on health.

3. Corporate practices account for a significant proportion of the 
attributable risk for many major causes 
of mortality and morbidity.

4. Differential exposure to unhealthy corporate practices 
contributes to socioeconomic, racial/ethnic 
and other health inequities.

5. Corporate marketing is a major determinant of 
lifestyle and thus health.

6. In order to increase profits, corporations often promote disease.

7. Public health researchers have a responsibility 
to study major determinants of health and to 
report findings to public, even if such findings challenge the status 
quo.

8. Reducing harmful corporate practices and 
encouraging health-promoting ones is an 
appropriate task for public health professionals and 
has led to prior public health successes.

9. Strategies to reduce harmful corporate practices 
must consider local, national and global responses, 
otherwise the burden is merely shifted to another population.

10. Changing corporate practices will require changing 
the relationship between government and business.


How to bring the subject of corporations and health into the public health curriculum

Faculty can use a variety of pedagogical strategies to bring this topic into the public health curriculum. First, concepts and examples related to corporations and health can be integrated into the five required public health core courses. This strategy ensures that all public health MPH students will be introduced to this topic. Box 2 shows various concepts that can be included in each of the core courses. A variety of pedagogical methods can be used: case studies, literature reviews, mini-research studies, term reports, etc.

Box 2

Integrating Concepts on Corporations and Health into the Core Public Health Curriculum

Core Course

Selected Concepts

Biostatistics

Methods to assess roles of industry in causation; history of industry efforts to challenge statistical methods and assumptions

Epidemiology

Attributable risk, corporate practices as social determinants, industry challenges to various epidemiological methods, contested science, multilevel methods to assess impact of corporate practices on behaviors

Health Policy and Management

Roles of insurance and pharmaceutical industries in health and health policy, prevention vs. treatment, roles of special interests in shaping policy, advocacy strategies to change policies

Environmental Health Sciences

Roles of industry in setting standards and regulatory practices, pathways by which products influence health and environment, sustainability, links between occupational and consumer exposures to dangerous products

Health and social behavior

Corporate disease promotion vs health promotion, corporate influences on lifestyle and health behavior, strategies to modify corporate practices, community organizing and coalitions

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A second strategy is to develop specific courses in corporations and health. Such courses provide interested students an opportunity to explore selected topics in more depth. Some subjects that have or can be considered as a public health elective course include: Globalization and health; Role of the tobacco, alcohol and food industries in population health; Interdisciplinary perspectives on roles of corporations and government in health; Public health strategies to modify corporate practices, and History of corporations and public health. Some of these courses may fit within a specific public health department while others lend themselves to interdisciplinary approaches, a perspective encouraged by the Institute of Medicine report on education for public health.

Third, students and faculty can develop research projects on the subject of corporations and health. These projects can be part of field placements, Master’s projects or course assignments. For example, students at the public health program at Hunter College have conducted a survey of alcohol advertising in the New York City subway system and have compared the street-level presence of the tobacco, alcohol and food industries in two New York City neighborhoods with differing socioeconomic characteristics.

Similarly, students can complete field placements or internships in research or advocacy organizations engaged in work on the tobacco, food, pharmaceutical, automobile or other industries. Such placements provide practical experience in documenting the impact of corporate practices on health, participating in research studies or advocacy campaigns to modify corporate practices or conducting policy analyses to identify appropriate control strategies. In some cases, such projects include collaborative work among local health departments, researchers, community or youth organizations and advocacy groups.

Finally, some public health program may develop tracks, interdisciplinary concentration areas, or centers on corporations and health. Such institutional arrangements can provide protected spaces outside traditional academic structures such as departments; provide opportunities for faculty and students across schools and disciplines to engage in dialogue and inquiry; and create ongoing links with other researchers, advocacy organizations, think tanks, public officials and others. For the most, part such units have to date focused on a specific industry or product. For example, the Center for Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Georgetown Universityor the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at University of California-Berkeley serve as critical academic resources for the efforts to reduce the harm from alcohol and tobacco use.

First steps in changing how public health schools approach corporations and health

Transforming the curriculum of public health academic programs is not something that will happen overnight. Rather, as faculty, students, researchers, advocates and public health officials find new ways to bring the subject of the impact of corporate practices on health into the classroom, curriculum and research practice of their programs, this approach will gain support. Eventually, future generations of students will ask what we were thinking in excluding this topic from our scrutiny. Box 3 lists some of the activities that faculty or students groups have used or are considering to get started on this path. Corporations and Health Watch visitors are encouraged to send their suggestions and experiences for future posting.

Box 3

Getting Started

Organize a faculty seminar on corporations and health and invite interested researchers from throughout your university

Create a websites or list serve on corporations and health for your school or university

Share course syllabi and discuss how to integrate the topic into core and other courses

Organize sessions on corporations and health at professional meetings

Encourage the Council on Education for Public Health, the American Public Health Association, those planning the public health certifying exam and other organizations to consider this topic

Create model academic and research programs where critical mass of faculty and resources exist.

 

By Nicholas Freudenberg, Founder and Director, Corporations and Health Watch.

 

References

1. See for example the selected bibliographies on the alcohol industry and the food industry as well as other references in theResources section of this website. 
2. Jaliel R. Presentation at Meeting of Industrial Diseases Study group of Ecole des Hautes Etudes Superieure, Washington, D.C. November 7, 2007. 
3. CDC. Ten great public health achievements–United States, 1900-1999. MMWR 1999;48:241-3.
4. Board on Health Promotion and Disease Prevention. Institute of Medicine. Who Will Keep the Public Healthy? Educating Public Health Professionals for the 21st Century. Washington, D.C.: National Acadmey Press, 2003.
5. Brandt A. The Cigarette Century. New York: Basic Books, 2007.

Photo Credit:

1. Mountainbread