Like most folks, you dutifully rub shampoo into your hair daily or a few times each week. After it strips out your hair’s natural moisture and liveliness, you apply a conditioner to get that moisture and liveliness back.
Much about modern life seems to follow this general pattern.
Mounting evidence suggests multinational companies negligently sell products to the public that are leading drivers of public health issues, while at the same time another division presents the “remedy” to that same harm. A panacea for their own poison, as it were. In this way, they profit twice: once when they supply the cause of our ailments, and again when we come to them for the cure.
It is clear that all is not well in Big Pharma these days. Americans have yet to coalesce around a plan to impose transparency and integrity on health care and pharmaceutical companies. Meanwhile, mounting evidence suggests the industry persists in the peddling hundreds of products each year with dubious claims and even more dubious real-world effects — all while maintaining stupefyingly high profit margins.
Sick and Getting Sicker
The real topics today are corporate consolidation and corruption. There may be no better figurehead for this problem than everybody’s favorite “Family Company” (their words): Johnson & Johnson. This is a family of more than 250 subsidiaries.
You will recall that the pharma giant’s talc-based baby powder is now inextricably linked to incidences of ovarian cancer. Websites which concern themselves with preventing this type of cancer specifically recommend omitting talcum powders from your daily constitutionals.
Fortunately enough for Johnson & Johnson’s bottom line, at least one company from their panoply of subsidiaries — Janssen Pharmaceuticals — charitably offers chemotherapy drugs for ovarian cancer patients for a mere $2,758 per dose. You can recognize it by the marketing-friendly name “Doxil.”
Let’s do another example.
You’re probably familiar with the sugar alternative called Equal. Equal and Canderel represent the Merisant Corporation’s two most common and most profitable sugar substitutes currently on the market. Mind you, such products are largely marketed toward health-conscious consumers who wish to eliminate sugar from their diet.
The only trouble is, these products contain aspartame — and mounting evidence links aspartame with Alzheimer’s disease, various cancers and multiple sclerosis.
Thankfully, MacAndrews & Forbes — the multinational that owns Merisant — also owns vTv Therapeutics, which (you guessed it) makes a pretty penny selling treatments for literally every health horror that aspartame allegedly contributes to.
Selling Snakeoil (With Government’s Help?)
The False Claims Act exists for a reason in America, theoretically. Under its guidance, corporations paid around $38.9 billion in damages and restitutionbetween 1987 and 2013 for lying to the public about what their products actually do.
But context is everything here. For scale, the United States’ entire GDP in 2016 was $18.5 trillion. What good is a $38-billion slap on the wrist, spread across 25 years and dozens of corporations? And where’s the evidence that these weak, punitive, reactionary measures actually get results? We need a system that prevents fraud — not one which reacts as an afterthought after it’s already taken place.
The Politics of Corporate and Human Dignity
How do we fix this?
To begin with, we have to recognize that America is one of only two developed countries in the world which allows pharmaceutical companies to market directly to consumers. They take advantage of this by spending, collectively, $3 billion on advertising to convince Americans to convince their doctors that they have a health concern worth writing a prescription for.
But what about the flagrant conflicts of interest like the ones we described above? How can it be that corporations wield power equal to governments and owns both the means to make us sick and to cure us?
The answer is simple: America stopped enforcing antitrust laws some time ago.
Part of the reason why is because nearly everything about commerce is vastly different than it was when anti-monopoly laws first hit our books. We didn’t envision a world where companies could grow so diversified in the products they sell. We wrote our laws to tackle monopolies within a single industry — we didn’t anticipate that a single company could dominate several very different sectors. Look at what happened to the stocks of supermarket companies after Amazon bought Whole Foods. That shouldn’t really be possible.
Then, overlay all of this with the cancerous influence of money in politics. Money has always shaped policy, but it’s been getting worse and worse since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Now, if policy is on the table — which might rein in corruption in a given industry — that industry mobilizes its army of lobbyists to kill that particular piece of legislation. Think of how Big Telecom frequently buys off local politicians and then instructs them to put up roadblocks to municipal broadband projects, which would easily deliver faster and cheaper service than American ISPs are “legally” required to provide. And then they charge extra for higher speeds.
These are all symptoms of the same disease, and that disease is institutional greed. Greed is why health care and many other products in America — even those which serve the public good in an obvious way, such as health care, education and access to the internet — gets worse and worse while simultaneously more expensive.
As the saying goes, “they’ve got us coming and going.”
Government for the Little People
When all else fails, we can turn to the smallest government there is — the minority — and vote with our wallets for the sort of companies and world we want. We have more information than ever before and we can share it more effectively than ever. Being aware is the first and most critical step in this fight.
But it’s also clear we need a more organized resistance against multi-continental, multi-national health, food, and cosmetics empires that operate with the autonomy of sovereign nations. We need greater public awareness and then we need homegrown public servants who act on it by speaking truth to power and greed, which often arrive conveniently packaged as a set, much like shampoo and conditioner.