Too many cars, too many guns, too many deaths: The public health consequences of over-production

In Beijing last month, the level of pollution for the fine particles known as PM 2.5 was 755, more than double the US EPA definition of hazardous, 300 micrograms per cubic meter .  PM 2.5 pollution is associated with higher death rates from lung cancer and heart disease as well as with a number of acute respiratory conditions.  According to the New York Times, Beijing residents described the air as “postapocalyptic,” “terrifying” and “beyond belief.”  The sources of PM 2.5 pollution are factories, coal furnaces and especially automobiles.  According to the Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency there are now 5.18 million vehicles in Beijing, compared with 3.13 million in early 2008, a choking 65% increase. 


Chinese officials have taken a number of emergency measures, including further limiting the number of cars allowed into the city ordering 180,000 older vehicles off the roads; and promoting the use of “clean energy” for government vehicles .


China is not alone in achieving record levels of urban air pollution.  Last week, levels of PM 2.5 pollution in New Delhi India exceeded those in Beijing. To date, Delhi’s government has not introduced any emergency measures.  In an earlier interview, Sheila Dikshit, the chief minister of the state of Delhi, acknowledged that the city could not keep up with the factors that cause air pollution.  Last year, a study in Lancet showed that air pollution has become a major health risk in developing countries, contributing to about 3.2 million premature deaths worldwide and moving for the first time onto the top ten killer list. More than 2.1 million of these deaths are in Asia. 


In the weeks since the Newtown Connecticut shootings on December 14, at least another 1,502 Americans have been killed by firearms (as of February 3, 2013), according to a crowd sourced story by Slate.  The deaths illustrate the myriad ways that guns in America can lead to tragedy: a girl shot as a bystander in a Chicago street, a two year old in South Carolina accidentally shot himself with his father’s .38 caliber handgun, an instructor in a shooting range shot by an angry customer, a soldier shot and killed in his barracks in Alaska, police officers and a Texas prosecutor. 


What do these air pollution deaths in Asia and gun deaths in the United States have in common?  Both are the result of the over-production and relentless marketing of products by the leading multinational corporations in two major consumer industries.  The global auto industry has set its sights on Asia, especially China and India, as the growth opportunities for this century. 


In 2009, General Motors sold 1.83 million vehicles in China and its market share grew from 1.3 per cent to 13.4 per cent. The firm is now the largest volume seller in China. At the time, GM China boss Kevin Wale told a reporter, “Despite the sales records in 2009, it looks as if 2010 will be even stronger,” he said. “The industry outlook is strong and we expect more growth, albeit at a somewhat slower pace.” In 2013, Forbes reports, GM expects continued growth.  Earlier this year, Dan Ammann, GM senior vice president and chief financial officer, told a  meeting of global auto leaders in Detroit, “We’re launching more vehicles globally than at any time in our history and some of our most important models are targeting the two largest markets in the world – the U.S. and China.


Of course the people of China want better transportation and the Chinese government is eager for partnerships that promote economic development.  But only the global auto companies have the capacity to translate that desire into a particular product –individual passenger vehicles — and to design, produce and market the products that maximize their profits.  Given their mandate to maximize returns on investment, they choose to contribute to increasing the millions of annual preventable deaths that their choice imposes rather than to consider alternative methods of transportation.  Producing enough cars to maintain profitability is more important than producing too many cars to sustain human health and the environment.


More than 300 million firearms sit in this country’s closets, under beds, in weapons racks and in glove compartments.  With less than 5% of the world’s population, we own more than 40% of all the firearms that are in civilians hands.  Why so many?   Prior to the 1960s, the gun industry had lost business as fewer people hunted or collected guns,  causing sales of rifles and shotguns to plummet.    Handguns –pistols and revolvers—became the industry’s hope for renewed profitability. In order to realize this goal, handgun producers had to make handguns affordable and they had to convince more people that they needed the protection a handgun offered.  To restore profitability, firearm companies have designed a sequence of products, from Saturday Night Specials in the 1970s and 1980s, to the super-sized semi-automatic handguns that Glock, Colt and Smith & Wesson produced in the last two decades to the assault rifles that are today’s must-have weapon.  To promote these products, the gun industry advertises relentlessly.  A few examples:

  • Bushmaster Firearms, a leading manufacturer of AR-15 weapons took the lead in aggressively marketing militarized assault weapons to civilians.  Its website uses the slogan, “Forces of opposition, bow down”. 
  • An ad for a pistol from Taurus USA promotes it as “the extreme-duty next generation handgun, created for Special Operations Personnel.”
  • In an effort to recruit young people into gun use, Junior Shooters, an industry-supported magazine, once featured a smiling 15-year-old girl clutching a semiautomatic rifle. At the end of an accompanying article that extolled target shooting with a Bushmaster AR-15, the author encouraged youngsters to share the article with a parent, an advertising strategy borrowed from McDonald’s.

Yes, American culture cherishes guns and yes, many Americans seem to have a deep emotional attachment to their weapons. But as with automobiles, only a handful of multinational corporations have the resources and the motivation to nurture those feelings, to translate the longing into finding, buying and sometimes using that weapon.  And it is that capacity that leaves America with an arsenal of 300 million weapons, a number that grows daily.  Having a firearm available increases the risk that suicides will be fatal, that gang disputes will result in deaths, that a bystander or family member will be killed during an intrusion, and that the partner of a domestic abuser will be killed rather than “only” injured. 


As a result, since 1960, more than one million people in the United States have been killed by guns and more than two million more have suffered non-fatal gun injuries. In this period, 13 times more Americans have been killed by firearms in the US than by the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan combined.  The gun death rate in the United States is 20 times higher than in other developed nations.


So what’s the solution?  In the short run, the incremental solutions that are already on the policy agenda are part of the answer.  For automobiles, this means stronger public health regulations to require manufactures to make less polluting and safer cars.  It means public incentives for mass transit and better designed cities that encourage active transportation like walking and bicycling.  And it means limiting car use during high pollution conditions, even though this is a closing-the-barn-door-after-the-horses-escape strategy.    


For firearms, it means safer guns—trigger locks, loaded chamber indicators, manual thumb safeties, grip safeties, magazine disconnectors, and more effective background checks and registration systems.


But in the long run, the world needs fewer cars, fewer guns, and fewer other lethal but legal products.  Humanity and the environment that sustains us cannot survive in a world where a few thousand companies decide to make and market what they want in the quantities they decide regardless of the long term health and environmental consequences. In the twentieth century, each of the two major economic systems, state socialism and market capitalism, demonstrated their incapacity to promote well-being, democracy and a sustainable environment. The health consequences of the overproduction of cars and guns tell us it’s time for some new ideas on how to balance public needs with the quest for private profits.