Monthly Archives: August 2013

Neoliberalism, tobacco, and public health (2)

The occasion for the rambling reflections on neoliberalism in the previous post was three “perspective” articles on tobacco in a recent issue of The New England Journal of Medicine. Two of them concern the FDA’s attempt to place graphic warnings on cigarette packs. The other is on cigarette smoking among the homeless.

The First Amendment

fda-graphic-warning-labels-cigarettes-are-addictivePlacing graphic warnings on cigarette packs was part of the 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act. The tobacco industry sued the FDA (R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. v. FDA), claiming the warnings violated the industry’s First Amendment rights. In a case decided last year, the tobacco industry won.

David Orentlicher, in his article The FDA’s Graphic Tobacco Warnings and the First Amendment, writes that the decision is both surprising and not surprising. It’s not surprising “given the Supreme Court’s increased sympathy toward corporations and their First Amendment rights. Regulations of commercial speech often succumb to judicial scrutiny.” It’s surprising because, while the Supreme Court now restricts the government’s power to regulate corporate speech, it has not in the past interfered with the government’s authority when it comes to regulating matters of public health. Evidently, that’s not the case anymore.

The upshot: (emphasis added)

[C]ompanies today are better able to promote their products, and government is less able to promote health than was the case in the past. Ironically, early protection of commercial speech rested in large part on the need to serve consumers’ welfare. In 1976, for example, the Supreme Court struck down a Virginia law that prevented pharmacists from advertising their prices for prescription drugs. The law especially hurt persons of limited means, who were not able to shop around and therefore might not be able to afford their medicines. Today, by contrast, courts are using the First Amendment to the detriment of consumers’ welfare, by invalidating laws that would protect the public health.

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Neoliberalism, tobacco, and public health (1)

This post became much too long, so I’ve divided it into two parts. The first part is mainly about neoliberalism; the second mainly about graphic warnings on cigarette packs (plus smoking among the homeless). When I read, in a recent NEJM article, “The Supreme Court’s increasing sympathy for corporate speech and decreasing deference to public health authorities makes it more difficult for government to protect the public’s health,” my first thought was: What a perfect example of neoliberalism in action.

fda-graphic-warning-labels-i-cause-diseaseNo one would claim that neoliberalism strives for consistency when implementing its ideals. For example, neoliberalism blames individuals for the health consequences of cigarette smoking (“I cause disease”) and at the same time opposes legislation to reduce cigarette consumption (graphic warnings on cigarette packs). When there is a choice to be made, the deciding factor for neoliberalism will be the efficiency with which wealth can be upwardly redistributed.

Personal responsibility

Personal responsibility — including personal responsibility for health — is a fundamental principle of neoliberalism. David Harvey writes on this in the context of neoliberalism and labor: (emphasis added in this and subsequent quotations from Harvey)

[L]abour control and maintenance of a high rate of labour exploitation have been central to neoliberalization all along. The restoration or formation of [elite] class power occurs, as always, at the expense of labour.

It is precisely in such a context of diminished personal resources derived from the job market that the neoliberal determination to transfer all responsibility for well-being back to the individual has doubly deleterious effects. As the state withdraws from welfare provision and diminishes its role in arenas such as health care, public education, and social services, which were once so fundamental to embedded liberalism, it leaves larger and larger segments of the population exposed to impoverishment. The social safety net is reduced to a bare minimum in favour of a system that emphasizes personal responsibility. Personal failure is generally attributed to personal failings, and the victim is all too often blamed.

Personal responsibility for health — fundamental to healthism (a frequent topic on this blog) — serves the interests of neoliberalism in a number of ways. It can be used to justify reduced spending on health care and social services by the state. This is desirable in itself, according to neoliberals, but it also increases consumer spending on health care, which in turn benefits the health care, pharmaceutical, and insurance industries. Read more

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