It’s a great idea that the individual should be responsible for his or her health. But this is becoming untenable in an era of mass industrial production and related environmental-health crises. We’ll have to update our views of personal and social responsibility if we want to get on a sustainable path, and this will require reconsidering many ideas about what constitutes “freedom.”
We don’t have widespread heart disease, cancer and diabetes because individuals are knowingly irresponsible and choose to get sick and die prematurely. We have these epidemics in large part because it became acceptable for the public to be exposed to industrial toxins and to embrace commercially-promoted lifestyles which increase these diseases. Smoking is the best known but not the only major example. Bans on cigarette smoking are still contentious in our “free market”, even though science long ago confirmed that smoking is the major factor in increasing lung cancer, which, in turn, is a major part of the overall cancer crisis. The profit-hungry cigarette industry tried every trick in the book to keep society from placing bans on it; the right to sell “cancer-sticks” was even called “free speech.” The chemical and nuclear industries continue with many similarly deceitful practices.
How did we get into such a fix, where commercial freedom became so pitted against public health? The corporate lobby has steadily gained influence since the 1970s. Pressure for deregulation, privatization and free trade went hand in hand with global corporate expansion, and “free market” ideology has pretty much dominated since then. This not only led to environmental health crises but to growing disparities between rich and poor as wealth trickled up more than down. In place of social-distributive justice we now look to the philanthropy of a small club of multi-billionaires to get some excess wealth at the top to the desperate people at the bottom. The pendulum may have swung as far as it can, after the deregulation of banks almost brought down the economic system, but we still lack a vision of a sustainable alternative.
HEALTH PRODUCTS UNDERMINING HEALTH
Perhaps the greatest irony is about health. Saskatchewan forged Medicare for all Canadians, and public payment now ensures universal access to major healthcare services. But the lucrative medical industry still operates in the for-profit market, so we face the predicament that many healthcare products, sometimes paid for by the public system, actually pose a danger to our health. You can’t watch TV and not be aware of the growing number of class actions suits against companies for the adverse effects of their products: an anti-depressant drug prescribed to women leading to heart defects among the new born; an Alzheimer’s drug with no beneficial effect targeted to the hopes and fears of in-laws; hip replacement products leading to extreme pain and joint failure; an herbal “viagra” bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars before it was finally revealed as a scam. These are North American examples from just the last few weeks.
The World Health Organization (WHO) now warns that UV radiation from tanning beds increases skin cancer risks. Yet in our “free market” even labelling to warn the consumer of these risks is stringently opposed. The desire to look tanned year-round comes from seeing life in consumer rather than common sense, ecological terms. In spite of global airplane travel and winter holidaying we remain a seasonal species. Our appearance naturally alters with the sleep cycle, the seasonal cycles and with our life cycle. Marketing to convince us to strive for a false standard of “beauty” and “aging” is becoming a threat to our health. The desire to look tanned year-round leads to an increase in the “ugliness” of skin cancer, which continues to rise, largely due to previously unregulated industrial chemicals thinning the protective ozone layer. Are consumers really exercising fundamental freedom when they aren’t aware of the hazards of tanning beds? When they are mesmerized by a social identity that “goes against nature”?
Food marketing further shows how upside down the “free market” has become. The freedom of the food industry to lace its products with sugar undermines human health and therefore limits our freedom. As the fast and packaged-food industry has expanded, our sugar intake has steadily grown. Sugar use has increased six fold since the 1950s; corn syrup now permeates commercial food. Medical science is now finding that our extreme sugar intake has raised our levels of “bad cholesterol”, our blood pressure and has increased fatty liver disease. It causes insulin spiking, which contributes to today’s diabetes epidemic. And the costs of these collective illnesses will not be borne by the food industry.
How did we get to the point where our so-called higher standard of living invites us to consume such toxic levels of sugar? Just one regular soft drink contains one and one-half times the recommended daily dose of sugar, so it’s not surprising that people who regularly eat in the fast-food market are overdosing day in and day out. The health consequences of this “freedom to market” require a re-evaluation of what we mean by “freedom.” Individual freedom seen as the right to consume food that is conveniently available and able to satisfy our impulses ends up taking away our freedoms due to the immobility and suffering resulting from disease. The escalating healthcare costs drain so many public resources that governments are less “free” to address other challenges such as renewable energy.
FREE MARKET COSTS
Language easily becomes deceptive. The phrase “free market” actually comes from combining “private market” with “free enterprise” as an ideological ploy during the Cold War. “Spin” in the pursuit of profit is now widespread. However, once we look at health outcomes, the term “free market” becomes questionable. Legislation to bring in car seat belts was strongly opposed as an affront to individual freedom. The car companies loved this libertarian ethic because it took them off the hook for producing safer vehicles. Millions died unnecessarily in this so-called automotive “free” market. The same happened with cigarettes and continues on with a rash of unhealthy, mass consumption illnesses.
A lot of this disconnect between image and outcome results from advertising. Commercial freedom in the service of perpetual economic growth allowed companies to market their products without having to tell “the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” As long as advertisers don’t make extremely false claims they are free to continue. And since products typically get into the market without fundamental screening for long-term effects on environmental health, the knowledge base to challenge false claims is initially lacking. This knowledge usually comes after the damage is underway and sometimes irreversible. The “free market” has the cart before the horse.
At what point will we see the prevention of disease and suffering, and the reduction of healthcare costs that could bankrupt the system, as being more fundamental to our freedom than the right to advertise and market products that undermine our personal and environmental health? We need to see past “free market” spin to get on a sustainable path.
Next time I’ll look at the serious threat that unregulated chemicals pose to human reproduction.