1980s >> 1986 >> no-979-march-1986

Profits from diseases

All over the world ill-health and premature death are caused by capitalism’s ruthless drive for profits. It is tragic that this should be the case, given technological advances and medical knowledge of the causes of major diseases in both the “underdeveloped” and industrialised countries.

Cancers are a common cause of death in the West but are mainly preventable, being related to smoking, occupational hazards, environmental pollution or diet. Every year more than 50.000 people in Britain die prematurely as a result of cigarette smoking, or from diseases to which cigarette smoking substantially contributes. Although the habit is known to be directly linked with lung cancer, heart disease and chronic bronchitis there has never been any attempt to regulate the highly profitable tobacco industry. The treasury receives about £4,000 million a year from tobacco tax and in return makes a token gesture of warning the public of the dangers of smoking. By contrast the tobacco industry spends £80 million a year on advertising to persuade the public that smoking is either manly or the hallmark of sophistication and success.

In underdeveloped countries the problem is worse: in the absence of information of the health dangers of tobacco consumption and unrestricted advertising, cigarettes, often with a high tar content, are marketed in a quite unscrupulous way. The expansion of tobacco growing has also taken land from socially more necessary but less profitable food production.

In Britain there are about 2,000 deaths a year as a direct result of working in the asbestos industry or living near an asbestos factory. The industry employs over 20.000 people and is worth £200 million. But in spite of knowledge of the dangers of asbestos for the last eighty years, regulations to control the levels of asbestos dust have only been introduced gradually and inadequately since 1932 and. in a number of cases, not properly enforced. The Asbestos Information Committee, faced with public pressure and fears over the dangers of asbestos in the 1970s. spent about £500,000 advertising the cheapness, usefulness and “safeness” of the material. But public anxiety over blue asbestos led to the closure of some British factories and the transfer of mining to countries where the absence of regulations allows greater profits to be made, at the cost of workers’ lives.

A number of other industrial processes are hazardous. Exposure to benzene can cause leukaemia; angiosarcoma (a rare liver cancer), cancers of the lung, digestive tract and brain can be caused by working with vinyl chloride; working with acrylic fibres increases the risk of developing lung and colon cancer; pesticides, particularly 2,4,5.—T, are dangerous carcinogens and. in some cases, cause severe birth defects in later generations.

The response of the chemical industry has been unvarying: to deny the health risk; to withhold information (the report on the causes of the Seveso explosion was not made available to the Health and Safety Executive in Britain or the trade unions); to put pressure on governments by claiming that the cost of pre-market testing and implementing safer working methods would be too expensive and lead to factory closures. And, as was the case with mining blue asbestos, multinational firms often move their factories to countries where controls are more lax if profitability is threatened. The tragedies of Bhopal and Seveso illustrate the devious ways in which multinational industries evade safety regulations in countries like Britain and the United States by exploiting workers who are inadequately protected by safety laws.

  . . . by offering compensation, the state recognises the risk to workers. However, it also accepts the continuation of the risk at its existing level and as a result it is the British worker who bears the burden of proof. Such flagrant discrepancies are not due to lack of information. but reflect the influence of industry on the regulatory process and a lack of commitment by government bodies to the removal of unnecessary cancer hazards from the workplace (L. Doyal and S. Epstein (Eds). Cancer in Britain, Pluto Press)

A number of food additives have been shown to cause cancer in animals yet they continue to be used to make food more attractive. mould resistant, or sugar-free in the case of saccharin. The production of food is grotesquely and artificially manipulated under capitalism to provide maximum profits. The European Economic Community maintains a policy of restricted food production. having recently cut back milk production by nine per cent, while 82 million acres of land were taken out of food production in the United States in 1982.

All of this happens despite millions of deaths from starvation or diseases associated with malnutrition because it is the ability to pay, and not social needs, that determines who will eat under capitalism. But, in the more “affluent” countries profits are increased by extending the number of processes which food undergoes. Easily digested junk-foods with a low-fibre, high-fat and high-sugar content are sold at inflated prices. Obesity, heart disease, bad teeth, constipation and cancer of the bowel are all problems which have, in some degree, been blamed on the refined foods consumed in industrialised countries. The health conscious person can buy — usually at a higher price — products such as bran, which have been originally removed in the refining process. To charge more for not adulterating food must be one of the most brazen forms of profiteering imaginable.

There are nearly 7,500 drug preparations available, a figure which has more than doubled in the last 20 years in spite of the fact that the majority of health problems could be treated with less than 200 drugs. The proliferation of drugs has not been due to their effectiveness; indeed, the reverse is the case, with nearly one in thirty hospital patients in Britain being admitted as a result of the side-effects of drugs.

Drugs such as Thalidomide and Debendox have caused severe birth defects; oral and injectable contraceptives have caused cancers of the liver, breast and uterus; female sex hormones have led to birth defects and cancers; anti-arthritic drugs frequently lead to ulcers, and “Opren” resulted in 61 deaths in a two-year period. Products of dubious benefit, or even those which are positively dangerous, are marketed with callous disregard for the well-being of the consumer. Drugs which are only available on prescription or restricted in Britain are sold over the counter in underdeveloped countries, allowing extra profits to be made at the cost of people’s health.

The environment has been damaged in the quest to produce goods as cheaply as possible to undercut competitors. Inner city pollution leads to higher rates of chest diseases such as chronic bronchitis and emphysema; the smogs of the 1950s forced some legislation to control smoke emission from factories, but with competition to produce goods more cheaply in a time of recession there have been calls to relax environmental controls. Dangerous chemicals and radioactive waste are dumped with scant regard for public well-being, while in the vicinity of nuclear power stations deaths from leukaemia exceed the national average.

Ill health and premature death are inexorably tied to the profit system; drugs could be safer; dangerous food additives need not be used; the pressure on young people to smoke and the stresses of employment which reinforce the habit could be removed; food could be produced for all of the world’s population; working with chemicals could be safer; pollution of the environment is not inevitable; the elderly need not die from the cold. But it will require the abolition of capitalism and of production for profit: only a society which produces for human needs can stop workers’ lives being squandered.

Carl Pinel