Transnational Corporations as Vectors in the Spread of Non-Communicable Diseases

1 Apr

The Rethink Aid site has an interesting article on links between multinational corporations (MNC) and non-communicable diseases (NCD). One MNC mentioned is Coca-Cola, which crops up frequently in the development literature, but usually in the form of a mere repetition of one of the corporation’s slimy press releases about how they are getting ‘life saving’ medications and supplies to places where they would otherwise be unobtainable.

Coke’s claims are rubbish for several reasons. Firstly, these expensive products are not available in areas where people are destitute because people cannot afford them (excuse the tautology), not because no one has figured out a way of getting them to those who need them, except those clever people at Coke, of course.

Secondly, many of these products are not ‘life saving’ at all. For example, contraceptives are often listed among such products. True, people should have access to contraception, whatever their circumstances. But mothers, babies, children and even adults die because of poor health, disease, extreme poverty and little or no health services.

Thirdly, all sorts of things are available to people at the ‘last mile’ of the supply chain, as long as there is a demand and as long as people can afford to pay for them. That’s why Coke goes there. No MNC would turn up in places where people couldn’t afford their products or where there was no demand for them, unless they could create a demand for them; and Coke has created a demand for Coke, there’s no doubt about that.

Referring to an article in The Lancet, the Rethink Aid author raises some interesting points, as well as giving a good summary of the article. But my argument is with the likes of the USAID blog author, who either swallows Coke’s rhetoric hook line and sinker, or is in the business of doing Coke’s work for them. And why wouldn’t USAID see itself as being in the business of promoting US industry? What else are public-private partnerships all about, but using ‘aid’ money to provide the private sector with much needed subsidies. They have never competed fairly in the past without subsidies and they’re not about to start now.

To some extent, the Rethink Aid article is about the very phenomenon exemplified by the USAID article. An author pretending to be writing as a health expert, but openly promoting an MNC, and one that produces one of the most destructive substances behind the rise in NCDs in the world, in wealthy and poor countries alike (Coca-Cola, in case you were wondering). I can’t resist citing Rethink Aid, though it’s well worth reading the article in full:

The [Lancet] article reports several key strategies used by tobacco, asbestos, and pharmaceutical companies that are now being implemented by alcohol and food industries:

  • Bias research findings. Companies are known to hire experts to publish ghost-written studies often not subject to traditional peer-review and establish quasi-independent organizations which publish and propagate biased conclusions.
  • Co-opt policy makers and health professionals. Companies are known to hire experts and promote public health campaigns to mislead the public and assist governments in drafting policies.
  • Lobby politicians and public officials to oppose public regulation. For instance: “the Sugar Association threatened WHO that it would lobby the US Government to withdraw its funding because WHO strategy on diet, physical activity, and health highlighted a strong link between sugar and NCD risk.”
  • Encourage voters to oppose public health regulation. Campaign for restricted role of government; develop ad and social media campaigns that support a blame-the-victim mentality and target the role of the individual in purchasing decisions; and avoiding disclosure of health information to consumers.

USAID, you probably think this song is about you.


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