Public Health Prof. Nicholas Freudenberg of Hunter College spoke at the School of Public Health Wednesday, discussing the consumption culture in the United States. The themes in his talk echoed his recently published book, “Lethal but Legal: Corporations, Consumption, and Protecting Public Health.”
Freudenberg’s work focuses on how corporations influence society by encouraging consumption of goods that ultimately cause illness and death. While relatively few people profit from these industries, the impact of their products affects billions of people and will continue to over the next century, he said.
During his lecture, Freudenberg said chronic disease and injuries are the leading causes of death and both are rooted in lifestyle choices. Fast food and cigarettes are linked to many chronic diseases and firearms and automobiles have caused millions of injuries, he said, adding that cigarettes are expected to kill one billion people. With the large number of victims, few people benefit from these industries.
“The most effective strategies are the ones that come from within communities,” Freudenberg said in an interview after the lecture.
Freudenberg has conducted research on how small sections of business cause large strife in communities. He added that another paradox is the disproportionate political power these industries wield.
He compared President Dwight Eisenhower’s “military industrial complex” to today’s “corporate consumption complex.” Freudenberg’s complex consists of any corporation that promotes unhealthy behavior, focusing primarily on cigarettes, alcohol and fast food. These corporations can be food companies themselves as well as lobbies and advertising agencies.
Freudenberg has also researched solutions to problems caused by the corporate consumption complex, such as the ‘90s fight started by community organizers against Uptown, the cigarette brand that was attempting to break into the market by specifically marketing to African-Americans.
Freudenberg also discussed the progress made in this area, citing the successful ban on new fast food franchises in downtown Los Angeles that has opened up space for farmers’ markets, mom-and-pop stores and other alternatives. Freudenberg advocates for community action as well as government restrictions.
“The antidote is more democracy,” Freudenberg said.
Freudenberg said full disclosure of political contributions as well as capping the amount of money corporations can donate and lobby for could help alleviate corporations’ hold on consumers. Freudenberg praised other Western nations that have restricted marketing toward children, who can’t tell the difference between the truth and persuasive tactics. Other suggestions for dismantling the corporate consumption complex were more radical. He said in addition to public transportation and libraries, the United States would benefit from having a public food source.
He said there have been a few examples in the past of the government intervening in an effective way to curb industries’ harming of public health. For example, automobile safety and environmental impacts have been improved through government restrictions. Still, Freudenberg was adamant about the role communities can play in promoting public health.