Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Relative wrongs

It's a big deal when somebody intentionally and directly generates kinetic energy that injures and kills lots of people -- sometimes. Military personnel obviously have a license to do it under approved circumstances. You would think that lying to the world in order to start a war would be considered a monstrous moral offense, but apparently not if you happen to be the president of the United States. But at least some people remain outraged by that and there has been a bit of public discussion about it. We decided to look forward, not back, however, so there will never be a formal accounting.

But what about people who market tobacco, or unhealthy foods? It is estimated that tobacco addiction kills 5 1/2 million people around the world annually, an average of 15 years before their life expectancy without the disease. Well, here's a controversy almost nobody has heard of. You have probably heard of Carlos Slim, the wealthiest Mexican and a well-known philanthropist. It turns out that the main source of his wealth is tobacco. I'm afraid this Lancet article is subscription only, so I'll summarize.

Slim contributes as much as $5 billion a year to his foundation, Instituto Carlos Slim de la Salud, which supports public health programs in Latin America. Last year, he announced a joint contribution with Bill Gates to a project to promote child health in Central America. It turns out that Slim was for many years majority owner of the Mexican tobacco company Cigatam. He has since sold a majority stake to Philip Morris, on whose board he now sits. He acknowledges that the enormous cash flow generated by Cigatam was the key to building his conglomerate empire.

The Gates Foundation has previously withdrawn cooperation from a Canadian charity whose director turned out to have tobacco industry ties, so Simon Chapman asks why Gates is willing to work with Slim. But I have a deeper question. Why is this man considered respectable in any way? He is a mass murderer on a scale that makes Pol Pot look like a petty criminal.

We have an astonishing capacity for selective attention.


JMT said...

This is peripheral to your main point, but I have been frustrated lately by comparisons (not only yours) between tobacco and unhealthy food. These are two different kinds of problems and should be dealt with differently. It is one thing to moralize about cigarettes, which are bad for everyone 100% of the time. On the other hand, food keeps people alive - even unhealthy food. I am not a fan in general of arguing from extremes - I recognize that for the vast majority of people, french fries are not keeping them alive, but rather leading to a worsening in health due to salts and fats. But I do think that we need to present - and people are perfectly capable of reacting to - a more nuanced public health message than "cheeseburgers are poison". Your thoughts?

Cervantes said...

It's generally correct to say that it's not really specific foods that are unhealthy, but rather foods eaten in the wrong proportions. Eating a piece of candy or an order of fries once a week isn't going to have any noticeable affect on your health. And if you are very physically active, you can fully afford throwing in a few empty calories on top of your veggies and whole grains.

The problem is that food manufacturers (and even they use that term) don't advertise and market foods that are more healthful and should be the basis of your diet -- they aggressively market the junk, so people end up eating too much of it. There are reasons for this intrinsic to the nature of capitalist production -- it's very difficult to brand produce and make big bucks marketing it as a big corporation, for example.

But a lot of food ads are dishonest and manipulative, and ads aimed at children seem particularly egregious since they have no ability to think critically about them. But Dole and Nestle and Frito-Lay and MacDonald's aren't in business for their health.

Cervantes said...

Oh -- by the way JMT, my dissertation committee chair was going to be Irv Zola, but he died just before I started. His wife was Judy Norsigian, an original OBOS creator. He was very interested in the medicalization of pregnancy and childbirth. If you haven't had a chance to meet Judy or other BWHBC folks, I know you would like to.

C. Corax said...

Whether Slim is respectable has nothing to do with whether he is rich, and clearly he is very rich by his investment in an addictive product that has killed countless people.

He's got the money anyway. He's going to give it to someone somehow (or spend it on himself). There are many less savory non-profits to which he could channel his money. ThinkRick Berman.

If the guy's going to give away his money, let it do some good in the world. It doesn't let Slim off of any ethical hooks, but it means the money's helping people, not supporting corporate agendas.