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Bringing Corporations into the Public Health Classroom

CHW Sept


With a new semester getting underway, students and faculty in public health and related fields are looking for additional ways to gain the skills and competencies they need to become effective public health professionals.  One promising approach may be to bring corporations more squarely into the public health classroom.  No, we’re not talking about giving away McDonald’s branded backpacks to our students, as some schools in Detroit are doing. Nor are we suggesting inviting Fortune 500 CEOs to teach public health classes on corporate social responsibility or market solutions to global health problems.

Today corporations play a decisive role in shaping patterns of health and diseases, public health policy and what the public knows about lifestyles and health.  Yet few schools of public health teach systematically about the health impact of corporations or prepare their students to analyze the role of corporations in health and social policy.

In this post, I suggest a few resources for public health faculty and students who want to bring a deeper understanding of corporations into the public health curriculum.  These sources can help public health faculty to add assignments and readings about the role of corporations to required and elective public health courses in policy, health education, epidemiology, public health history and environmental and occupational health. They can also help students to write papers, find field work opportunities and pursue careers that help to define appropriate roles for public and private sectors and to prevent or reduce corporate practices that harm health.

Five Useful Websites on Corporations and Health

Corporate Accountability International.  One of the oldest and largest global corporate accountability groups with documents covering its campaigns against infant formula, tobacco, fast food, water, nuclear weapons and other industries.  Organizes and supports global campaigns to end abusive corporate practices.

Corporations and Health Watch Monitors the impact of corporate business and political practices of food and beverage, firearms, automobile, pharmaceutical, alcohol and tobacco industries.  Contains repository of media articles and scientific publications on these topics.

Corporate Watch  Provides information on the social and environmental impacts of corporations and capitalism. Since 1996 its research, journalism, analysis and training have supported people affected by corporations and those taking action for radical social change.

The Poison Papers  Documents the Hidden History of Chemical and Pesticide Hazards in the United States.   The “Poison Papers” represent a trove of rediscovered chemical industry and regulatory agency documents and correspondence stretching back to the 1920s. The papers show that both industry and regulators understood the extraordinary toxicity of many chemical products and worked together to conceal this information from the public and the press. These papers will transform our understanding of the hazards posed by certain chemicals on the market and the fraudulence of some of the regulatory processes relied upon to protect human health and the environment.

Toxic Docs Contains millions of pages of previously secret documents about toxic substances. They include secret internal memoranda, emails, slides, board minutes, unpublished scientific studies, and expert witness reports — among other kinds of documents — that emerged in recent toxic tort litigation. Based at Columbia University and the City University of New York.

Know of other non-profit websites or organizations useful in learning more corporations and health?  Send us link and description and we will update resources.

Five Useful Recent Books

These books published in the last year or two introduce recent scholarship on corporations and health.  They provide faculty and students with an overview of the topic and can be used in teaching about the health impact of corporations.  

Freudenberg N.  Lethal But Legal: Corporations, Consumption, and Protecting Public Health. Paperback Edition With new Afterword. Oxford University Press, 2016.

Kenworthy N, MacKenzie R. Lee K, eds. Case Studies on Corporations and Global Health Governance: Impacts, Influence and Accountability 1st Edition Rowman & Littlefield International; 1 edition (July 18, 2016)

Lee K, Hawkins B.  Researching Corporations and Global Health Governance An Interdisciplinary Guide. Rowman and Littlefield, 2016.

Quelch JA, ed.   Consumers, Corporations, and Public Health: A Case-Based Approach to Sustainable Business . Oxford University Press, 2016.

Walker MJ.  (Editor)Corporate Ties That Bind: An Examination of Corporate Manipulation and Vested Interest in Public Health, 2017.

Know of other recent books that might help public health professionals learn more about corporations and health?  Send us link and description and we will update resources.

15 Recent Useful Articles

This selection of articles from the last two years shows some of the questions public health researchers are asking about corporations and should provoke discussion in a variety of public health classes.  They might also serve as starting points for semester projects or research papers for public health students.

Ajunwa I, Crawford K, Ford JS. Health and Big Data: An Ethical Framework for Health Information Collection by Corporate Wellness Programs. J Law Med Ethics. 2016 Sep;44(3):474-80.

Anaf J, Baum FE, Fisher M, Harris E, Friel S. Assessing the health impact of transnational corporations: a case study on McDonald’s Australia. Global Health. 2017 Feb 6;13(1):7.

Baker P, Friel S. Food systems transformations, ultra-processed food markets and the nutrition transition in Asia. Global Health. 2016 Dec 3;12(1):80

Banerjee D. Markets and Molecules: A Pharmaceutical Primer from the South. Med Anthropol. 2017 May-Jun;36(4):363-380.

Baum FE, Sanders DM, Fisher M, Ana J, Freudenberg N, Friel S, Lamont R, London L, Monteiro C, Scott-Samuel A, Sen A. Assessing the health impact of transnational corporations: its importance and a framework. Global Health. 2016 Jun 15;12(1):27.

Brisbois BW, Cole DC, Davison CM, Di Ruggiero E, Hanson L, Janes CR, Larson CP, Nixon S, London K, Stim B. Corporate sponsorship of global health research: Questions to promote critical thinking about potential funding relationships. Can J Public Health. 2016 Dec 27;107(4-5): e390-e392.

Casswell S, Callinan S, Chaiyasong S, Cuong PV, Kazantseva E, Bender T, Chuckle T, Parker K, Rialtos R, Wall M. How the alcohol industry relies on harmful use of alcohol and works to protect its profits. Drug Alcohol Rev. 2016 Nov;35(6):661-664.

Delobelle P, Sanders D, Puoane T, Freudenberg N. Reducing the Role of the Food, Tobacco, and Alcohol Industries in Noncommunicable Disease Risk in South Africa. Health Educ Behav. 2016 Apr;43(1 Suppl):70S-81S.

Hawkins B, Holden C, Eckhardt J, Lee K. Reassessing policy paradigms: A comparison of the global tobacco and alcohol industries. Glob Public Health. 2016 Mar 21:1-19.

Hawkins B, Holden C. a Corporate Veto on Health Policy? Global Constitutionalism and Investor-State Dispute Settlement. J Health Polit Policy Law. 2016 Oct;41(5):969-95.

Hernandez-Aguayo I, Zaragoza GA. Support of public-private partnerships in health promotion and conflicts of interest. BMJ Open. 2016 Apr 18;6(4): e009342.

Robaina K, Babor TF. Alcohol industry marketing strategies in Latin America and the Caribbean: the way forward for policy research. Addiction. 2017 Jan;112Suppl 1:122-124.

Scrinis G, Monteiro CA. Ultra-processed foods and the limits of product reformulation. Public Health Nutrition 2017;(in press) 1–6.

Weishaar H, Dorfman L, Freudenberg N, Hawkins B, Smith K, Razum O, Hilton S. Why media representations of corporations matter for public health policy: a scoping review. BMC Public Health. 2016 Aug 30; 16:899.

Zoller HM. Health Activism Targeting Corporations: A Critical Health Communication Perspective. Health Commun. 2017 Feb;32(2):219-229.

Know of other recent books that might help public health professionals learn more about corporations and health?  Send us citation and link and we will update this list.

Some Corporate Related Competencies for Public Health Students 

As the Council on Education for Public Health and other professional bodies are requiring schools of public health to revise and update their competencies and learning objectives, schools have an opportunity to introduce new expectations for their students –and faculty.  The competencies listed below can be used in several ways.  Core public health courses can include sessions on these topics as they relate to, for example, epidemiology, health policy, environmental health, or health education. Some public health programs have developed specialized courses on the topic, allowing students to pursue this interest.  Or a student-faculty interest group can bring together those who want to pursue research, advocacy or practice on the corporate impact on public health

1. Identify corporate business and political practices that affect health.

2. Elucidate the pathways by which they shape patterns of health and disease.

3. Develop public health strategies to encourage health-promoting corporate practices and discourage or end health-damaging ones.

4. Analyze the public health advantages and disadvantages of various government/market relationships

5.  Create alliances with consumer, environmental, labor and health organizations and movements that seek to change harmful corporate practices and policies

6.  Describe the roles of public health professionals and researchers in modifying harmful corporate practices or policies.

Do you have a syllabus to share or suggested additional competencies?  Send them (or a link) to us for posting.

Deregulatory Disasters: People Harmed by Deregulation Speak Out Against the Regulatory Accountability Act

People who have been harmed by inadequate regulatory protections shared their tragic stories at a press conference at the Economic Policy Institute last week. The event was sponsored by the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards, an alliance of more than 150 organizations.  The coalition and speakers called on Congress to reject the Regulatory Accountability Act (S. 951), which would shut down our system of public protections. From dangerous cars to unsafe food to harmful consumer products, these heartbreaking and emotional stories illustrate the far-reaching impact of the corporate-backed deregulatory agenda pushed by Congress and the White House by showing how it affects the lives of workers, consumers and families. Watch the event here.

100,000 Pages of Chemical Industry Secrets Gathered Dust in an Oregon Barn for Decades — Until Now

For decades, some of the dirtiest, darkest secrets of the chemical industry have been kept in Carol Van Strum’s barn writes Sharon Lerner in The Intercept. The 80-year-old structure in rural Oregon housed more than 100,000 pages of documents obtained through legal discovery in lawsuits against Dow, Monsanto, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Forest Service, the Air Force, and pulp and paper companies, among others. As of today, those documents and others that have been collected by environmental activists will be publicly available through a project called the Poison Papers.

Big Tobacco v Global Health: Time for New Strategies

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If present trends continue, experts predict, the tobacco toll in the 21st century will reach one billion premature deaths, ten times the 100 million people who died from tobacco use in the 20th century, writes Nicholas Freudenberg for Common Dreams. To avert that future will require changing the focus of current tobacco control strategies from a primary focus on changing the behavior of present and future smokers to one that seeks to change the practices of the tobacco industry itself.  Without a more direct effort to change the practices of the powerful corporations that drive the world’s leading cause of death, ending the tobacco epidemic will remain a distant goal.

Last week, two events shed light on current strategies the global tobacco industry uses to counter threats to profitability.  In London, shareholders of British American Tobacco (BAT) and in Winston-Salem, Reynolds shareholders approved a BAT buyout of Reynolds that will create the world’s largest tobacco company.  In Geneva, the World Health Organization (WHO) released its 2017 report on the global tobacco epidemic, calling on member states to counter the rising tide of tobacco corporate lobbying and litigation that undermines public health measures around the world.  Read more

Policy lessons from health taxes: a systematic review of empirical studies

Taxes on alcohol and tobacco have long been an important means of raising revenues for public spending in many countries but there is increasing interest in using taxes on these, and other unhealthy products, to achieve public health goals. This systematic review aims to generate insights into how such taxes can: (i) reduce consumption of targeted products and related harms; (ii) generate revenues for health objectives and distribute the tax burden across income groups in an efficient and equitable manner; and (iii) be made politically sustainable. Findings demonstrate that high tax rates on sugar-sweetened beverages are likely to have a positive impact on health behaviors and outcomes, and, while taxes on products reduce demand, they add to fiscal revenues. If the primary policy goal of a health tax is to reduce consumption of unhealthy products, then evidence supports the implementation of taxes that increase the price of products by 20% or more. Earmarking health taxes for health spending tends to increase public support so long as policymakers follow through on specified spending commitments. Citation: Wright A, Smith KE, Hellowell M. Policy lessons from health taxes: a systematic review of empirical studies. BMC Public Health. 2017;17(1):583.

Industry Tactics from “Coke Leaks”


Using quotes from the leaked emails from the soda industry, this brief from Healthy Food America and Ninjas for Health illustrates the tactics the soda industry uses to achieve its business and political objectives. Internal executive emails from Coca-Cola show its coordinated global strategies to defeat sugary drink policies and influence dietary guidelines. The emails confirm what public health advocates have said for years – the beverage industry is following the tobacco industry’s playbook to fight health regulations worldwide. The emails reveal how the soda industry 1) funds studies that support its arguments, 2) pressures journalists, 3) lobbies against federal and international health policy, 4) deflects with self-regulation, 5) lies about grocery taxes, and 6) organizes fake grassroots opposition.

Massachusetts consumer and health care groups called on lawmakers to rein in skyrocketing prescription drug prices

MASSPIRG, Health Care For All, Health Law Advocates and others urged the Massachusetts Legislature’s Joint Committee on Health Care Financing to support S.652, An Act to promote transparency and prevent price gouging of pharmaceutical drug prices. The bill requires pharmaceutical manufacturers to disclose detailed information on the underlying cost components and pricing of the most expensive drugs including costs of production, R&D, marketing, rebates and discounts, and prices charged to purchasers outside of the U.S., among other information. The bill also authorizes intervention by state health care agencies and the Attorney General’s Office when pricing practices are determined to be gouging or unjustified. “Skyrocketing prescription drug prices are leading to higher health care costs for Massachusetts residents,” said Deirdre Cummings, Legislative Director at MASSPIRG. “In fact, according to an analysis of state data we submitted as testimony to the committee, rising pharmaceutical prices have a disproportionately high impact on Massachusetts health care premiums.”