For observers of how corporations find ways to profit at the expense of public health, the news coverage of 2014 provides a wealth of evidence. Here are three stories that caught my eye last year. Next week I’ll present stories about the food, firearms and tobacco industries, the other sectors that Corporations and Health Watch follows.
Auto Recalls at General Motors, Chrysler, Ford, Toyota, Honda and Others Set New Record
Last year, reported the New York Times, more than 60 million vehicles have been recalled in the United States, double the previous annual record in 2004. In all, there have been about 700 recall announcements — an average of two a day — affecting the equivalent of one in five vehicles on the road. The eight largest automakers have each recalled more vehicles in the United States this year than they have on average since 1966, when data collection began, with G.M., Honda, and Chrysler each setting corporate records, the review by The Times found.
GMs failed ignition switches on Chevy Cobalts and several other models were one source for the recalls. Another was airbags manufactured by Takata, a Japanese parts maker, that occasionally exploded injuring or killing passengers or drivers. According to Consumer Reports, 7.8 million vehicles, made by 10 different automakers, have been recalled to replace frontal air bags on the driver’s, passenger’s sides or both. An ominous lesson from the Takata recalls is that globalization of the auto industry and the concentration of parts makers into a few giant companies can result in many manufacturers relying on the same few parts suppliers. If these parts fail, the population impact can be enormous.
AstraZeneca, Eli Lilly, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck and Other Drug Makers Pay Doctors and Hospitals Billions to Promote their Drugs
According to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, as of December 19, 2014, drug makers paid at least 366,000 U.S. doctors and 900 teaching hospitals $3.7 billion for gifts, meals, travel, speaking about their products, or attending promotional events.
In a series of stories called Dollars for Docs: How Industry Dollars Reach Your Doctors, Pro Publica describes the many ways that drug companies pay doctors—often physicians who have been previously sanctioned for unethical or illegal practices– to promote their products. Pro Publica also provides a database that allows readers to look up what companies have paid which doctors. This information is now available thanks to the Physician Payment Sunshine Act, a part of the Affordable Care Act that went into effect in 2014. Would requiring other companies in other sectors to report who they paid to promote their products help consumers to make more informed judgments on products?
Alcohol Makers Market Powdered Alcohol
Powdered alcohol hasn’t even arrived in stores yet, but some states already are moving to ban the product touted by its inventor as an easy way to mix a drink on the go. The UK-based Daily Mail reports that Colorado is the latest state considering prohibiting ‘Palcohol’ amid concern it will increase underage drinking. The product is marketed as an ounce of rum or vodka in powdered form, which is then added to water. Each serving is the equivalent of a shot of liquor, according to Lipsmark, the company that owns Palcohol. The company awaits labeling approval from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. The Food and Drug Administration said it does not have a legal basis to block the product after examining the non-alcoholic ingredients in the powder. Will this product make it to market in 2015? Stay tuned.
In May 2014, David H. Jernigan, Director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health noted:
“Based on our experience with jello shots, alcoholic energy drinks, and other “cutting edge” alcohol products, we anticipate that allowing powdered alcohol onto the market will have grave consequences for our nation’s young people. Youth is a time of risk-taking and experimentation, and these types of products have proven most popular among the heaviest drinking and more risk-prone youth. Powdered alcohol is also highly concealable, making it all too easy for youth to access and consume. Currently 4300 young people under age 21 die each year from alcohol-related causes; our efforts should be focused on making alcoholic products less, not more, available to our nation’s youth.”