Private sector impact on the harm done by addictive substances


In this chapter, we will outline the role of private businesses, both legal and illegal, in contributing to the harm done by addictive substances. The chapter will cover the alcohol and tobacco businesses, and will include businesses involved in the production and sale of illegal drugs. The chapter will describe how the businesses operate and their influence on governments, science, civil society, and the policy processes. The chapter will review the difficulties of engaging with such private companies in reducing the harm done by addictive substances, including transparency, conflict resolution, and negotiation.

How business operates

The first rule of business is that it aims for profit maximization—but business is not just a matter of economics. It is a matter of politics, too. This is important as—by necessity—those who run business corporations do so in particular political circumstances and they take decisions in what they judge to be the best interests of the corporation. However, these decisions involve both economic and political assessments by business leaders, as opposed to (just) the abstract laws of economics. As a result, business engages directly in politics and business decisions that reflect the information available to corporate executives, as well as their assessment of what is politically possible at a particular level or scale, and what is desirable. This has potential effects on addictions that can be both negative and positive in terms of public health.

The second key argument is that the historical epoch in which we currently live—neoliberalism—provides a master context for business action in politics. Neoliberalism has been usefully defined by David Harvey (2005) as ‘the doctrine that market exchange is an ethic in itself, capable of acting as a guide for all human action’. It is important to stress that it is a doctrine and not a type of society. Neoliberalism affects societies unevenly and sometimes unpredictably. Often neoliberal reforms do not result in the claimed cuts to public spending or improvements in the ‘efficiency’ of public services. The gap between the claims of the doctrine and the results is perhaps produced, in part, because mistakes were made or the theory was inadequate, but most importantly it is because the doctrine is a means of pursuing—we might say masking—certain interests. It is, in other words, ideological (Miller, 2015).

For our purposes it is useful to think of how neoliberalism affects the policy environment in two ways: (1) that neoliberalism systematically advantages corporate, and especially transnational corporate, interests in relation to particular policy decisions; and (2) that it alters the policy architecture so that the practical decision-making regime that applies in relation to a range of decisions is altered to become more corporate friendly. This distinction is important as it not only draws attention to both the specific way in which particular policy decisions are made, but also the way in which the general regime of policy-making changes. For our purposes, this is important as there are a number of architectural decisions which, although apparently far distant from the concerns of tobacco, alcohol, or food companies, are actually implicated in systematically advantaging those corporations downstream in the discussion of specific policy measures. Furthermore, as we will see later, the industrial sectors thus advantaged can be shown to be active in lobbying on these ‘architectural’ issues—for example, better regulation, impact assessment, or the precautionary principle.

The organizations that manufacture and promote addictive products play an important but often poorly understood role in the field of addictions (Lee et al., 2004; Baggott, 2006; Miller and Harkins, 2010). These significant stakeholders are involved in a complex network of relationships with organizations in corporate, state, and non-governmental spheres (Connolly, 1995; Hastings and Angus, 2009). To examine the role played by economic actors in supporting and attenuating addictive behaviours we focus on corporate tactics in relation to public health. The growth of partnership modes of governance invites a range of stakeholders formally into the policy process. As modes of governance become increasingly reliant on these partnerships, and, indeed, these partners, it is important to have a full understanding of how economic and non-economic actors interact, and what implications this has for policy and related practices. Corporate actors form networks that are active across multiple domains. Thus, it is necessary to undertake a comparative analysis of regulatory and self-regulatory frameworks and practices; complemented by examination of the role of economic actors in public discourses on addictions, as well as expert and policy- related discourse (Babor et al., 1996; Barnoya and Glantz, 2006).

Recent research has suggested commonalities between the corporate strategy of the tobacco industry in the USA over the latter half of the twentieth century, and the current behaviour of elements within the food industry (Chopra and Darnton-Hill, 2004; Brownell and Warner, 2009). Do such comparisons work for other ‘substance’ addictions?

Corporations are units of economic and political decision-making that are legally and organizationally distinct units of activity. They both compete and act together with other firms via—most obviously—trade associations. However, they also collaborate with, create, or pass funding to non-economic actors such as lobby organizations; policy-planning groups, consulting, public relations (PR), and legal firms; think tanks; foundations; and non-governmental organizations. The establishment of a European single market and the emergence of a European public sphere (Fossum and Schilesinger, 2007; Michel, 2007) have prompted companies to reorient towards European Union (EU) policy-makers (Eising, 2009; Greenwood, 2011). Corporations engage in strategic decisions about how to pursue influence and in order to understand that influence we need to trace the routes that industrial actors take to pursue their interests. In practice, we find that multiple routes are taken across the various levels of policy engagement and thus we describe our approach as a ‘multiple routes to influence’ model.

Corporations adopt coordinated strategies that involve multiple organizations and channels of communication. For this reason, we argue that this research should start with the corporate actors themselves, before considering the arenas in which they mobilize and their relationship to institutions of governance. Arenas are defined as specific spaces of strategic action and contest, and we focus here on science, the political arena, civil society, and the public sphere. As a result, we need to conceive of corporate action in a number of domains. Thus, as Compston (2013) notes, ‘If we take the view that business power is something to be established empirically, one factor to consider is the degree of business unity. The extent to which business is united, if at all, is one of the main issues dividing pluralists from elitists, but both assume that unity does or would enable business to exert more influence on public policy’.

Thus, we examine the extent of unity and the way in which corporate actors cohere or divide over particular issues.

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