Archive for the ‘health’ Category

Philip Morris: Endangering Kids and Academic Ethics

Tobacco giant Philip Morris is doing its best to get its hands on research about teen smoking, and encouraging some UK academics to violate ethical standards along the way.

Here’s the story, by Andrew Hough for the Telegraph: Philip Morris: tobacco firm using FOI laws to access secret academic data

Philip Morris International has tried to force the University of Stirling to hand over secret data into teenage smoking and cigarette packaging gathered over more than a decade.

The manufacturers behind the popular Marlboro brand, have used Freedom of Information laws to [attempt to] gain access [to] about 6000 confidential interviews undertaken with teenagers as young as 13, which discuss their views on smoking and tobacco….

The researchers are rightly fighting the request.

It’s a shocking move on Philip Morris’s part, even just from a PR point of view. To be seen seeking information that the company clearly hopes to use in marketing to children will do nothing to improve anyone’s opinion of the firm or the industry.

But there’s a second wrong, here, and that lies in the attempt to get the researchers in question to violate their obligations to the research subjects — the children and their parents — who participated in the research in question.

When university-based researchers conduct any kind of research on human beings, they are required to adhere to pretty strict standards for research ethics. The most fundamental of those standards has to do with obtaining informed consent from research subjects. Such consent may be obtained only after research subjects are fully informed about the goals of the research, as well as about what sorts of privacy protections they can expect. In the case described here, it is almost certainly the case that the children interviewed, and their parents, would have been assured that while the researchers would of course eventually make public the aggregate results of their research, the raw data — the interview transcripts that Philip Morris seems to be seeking — would of course be kept confidential.

So Philip Morris is asking these researchers to break their promise and to breach the trust placed in them by research subjects. The company is attempting to get the researchers to violate their duty. This puts the company’s behaviour into the same moral category as suborning perjury or intentionally putting another party into a conflict of interest. It’s a bad thing when a company violates its own duties; but it is especially corrosive to work so hard at encouraging other people to violate theirs.

Winning the Hearts and Minds of Organic Consumers

The agri-food business has rapidly become one of the most ethically-controversial on the planet. Vicious cultural battles are being fought over what constitutes an ethically-decent way to raise various food products. And marketers are fighting tooth-and-claw to develop and market food products that meet the increasingly diverse desires of consumers — including consumers who may want food that is not just low-fat, low-salt, and low-cal, but organic, free-range, local, low-carbon, cruelty-free, fair-trade and/or free of genetically-modified ingredients. Winning the hearts and minds of a public with such varied preferences and interests is no easy task.

For a peek at the cultural and ethical complexity of the agri-food industry, check out this story, by Louise Gray, writing for The Telegraph: Soil Association ditches rockstars to go back to its roots. The story is really a profile of Helen Browning, the new director of the UK’s Soil Association, which is the nation’s most significant pro-organic charity, as well as the organization responsible for the world’s very first certification system for organic food back in the 60’s.

Two key points are worth making, here:

1) Browning displays an unusual degree of common sense in avoiding an “us vs. them” attitude towards non-organic farmers:

Much to the dismay of the more ‘fundamentalist’ wing of the organic movement she is also relaxed about letting non-organic farmers join the organisation and sharing information with intensive agriculture….

This is essential, if advocates of organic farming really are concerned with the health of consumers and the planet, rather than merely being concerned with promoting the organic ‘brand.’ Turning organic agriculture into an all-or-nothing category makes it too much like a cult, alienating non-organic farmers and giving them little reason to try to learn about alternatives or to reduce the amount of pesticides they use.

2) On the other hand, Browning’s hit-and-miss attention to science is are sure to do damage to her cause.

The former chair of the food ethics council argues that large scale units are overusing antibiotics and creating MRSA strains that are a danger to humans as well as animals.

She uses homeopathy to keep her herd healthy, but mostly it is being outdoors on a mixture of grass and clover that makes happy cows and tasty beef….

This is rather alarming. While Browning is right to worry about overuse of antibiotics in agriculture — that’s a serious public-health risk — opting for homeopathy as an alternative is utter lunacy, roughly equivalent to relying on witchcraft. (The Soil Association’s standards for organic livestock do permit standard vaccination, but also promotes the use of homeopathy.) Where the health of food animals is concerned, we need proven methods, not dis-proven ones. Consider: any food-processing plant that relied exclusively on, say, prayer or the blessings of a priest to eliminate germs, instead of thoroughly cleaning their machines, would face the wrath of regulators, not to mention public outrage. If organic agri-business is to win not just hearts, but also minds, it needs to do a better job of relying on science, and not just wishful thinking.

Pepsi Under Pressure

It’s not easy selling carbonated sugar-water. Or rather, the selling part is all too easy. The hard part is steering a course between the conflicting desires of shareholders and activists. Shareholders want profits. That means selling more of high-profit-margin products like Pepsi and Doritos. Activists want companies to stop pushing unhealthy products like Pepsi and Doritos, and to focus on healthier — but less profitable — products.

See this story, by Mike Esterl and Valerie Bauerlein, for the WSJ: PepsiCo Wakes Up and Smells the Cola

…The snack-food and beverage giant is launching the first new advertising campaign for its flagship Pepsi-Cola in three years—offering one of the most visible signs PepsiCo is throwing new weight behind its biggest brand after it sank to No. 3 in U.S. soda sales last year, trailing not only Coke but Diet Coke….

When industry market share numbers came out in March, showing Pepsi-Cola slipped to No. 3, analysts quickly accused PepsiCo—and Chairman and Chief Executive Indra Nooyi—of taking their eyes off the company’s biggest brand….

There’s a lesson here for activists who think that reforming corporate behaviour is a simple matter of willpower, that companies can shift to healthier foods (or to less-violent video games) if only they had the guts to try it. Shifting your business practices in a way not endorsed by consumers is, well, a recipe for disaster.

Then again, maybe that’s a pretty decent outcome, from an activist’s point of view.

What’s the long-term prognosis? An ebb and flow of corporate strategy, in response to a range of pressures. Activists will win a few battles, as well as surely losing a few. Forcing companies to do what you want means forcing consumers to consume what you want. Because as everyone in business knows, while it’s simply not true that “the customer is always right,” it surely is true that the customer is always the customer.

Are Girl Scout Cookies Evil?

Girl Guide CookiesIs nothing sacred? What could be more pure and innocent and hard-to-object-to than delicious bite-sized cookies sold, door-to-door, by happy-faced young girls trying to raise money to support a wonderful not-for-profit organization?

Well, apparently nothing is safe from criticism. Girl Guide cookies, as it turns out, are under attack for being made with palm oil, a tropical oil the production of which has been blamed for deforestation and for endangering the habitat of orangutans. Girl Scout cookies, in their current form, are apparently evil.


Here’s the story as reported by Tara Kelly, blogging for Time: Do Girl Scout Cookies Harm the Environment? Renegade Scouts Fight Against Palm Oil Ingredient

…now two renegade girl scouts are lobbying the Girl Scouts of America to remove the ingredient from the cookies.
Rhiannon Tomtishen and Madison Vorva, who are high school sophomores, stopped selling Girl Scout cookies in 2007 after they began working on a public service project to bring attention to the plight of endangered orangutans in Borneo. To ramp up their efforts, Rhiannon Tomtishen and Madison Vorva, natives of Ann Arbor, Michigan, have teamed up with Rainforest Action Network (RAN) to make the change a reality….

OK, OK. So I’ve long realized that Girl Scout Cookies (a.k.a. “Girl Guide Cookies,” here in Canada) are evil, but only in roughly the same way that any addict realizes that the object of his desire is evil. Every year I buy quite a few boxes of GG Cookies (the mint wafer kind, thank you very much) and hoard them, hiding them from family and friends, to enjoy them one-by-delicious-one.

A few random thoughts about the ethical issues here:

1) This is a lovely example of why not-for-profit organizations fall squarely within the bailiwick of business ethics, even if they’re not “businesses” as that term is traditionally conceived. (According to Time, by the way, the Girl Scouts annually sell nearly three quarters of a billion dollars worth of their delicious baked goods.) I suspect that Kathy Cloninger, CEO of Girl Scouts USA, is finding out that even a not-for-profit cannot hide its head in the sand when faced with criticism of its supply chain.

2) Sometimes (but only sometimes) evil comes from trying to do good. Time notes the reason for the existence of palm oil in the cookies:

In 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration began requiring unhealthy trans-fats to be listed on the Nutrition Facts labels on food products. Two official Girl Scouts bakers worked to make its cookies healthier in light of the changes, said Tomkins. “In order to rid cookies of trans-fats, you had to find another alternative.” That alternative is palm oil.

So, the cookies are less-environmentally-friendly because of efforts to make them better for your arteries. Is there a win-win alternative out there? Maybe, but that cannot be assumed. It may well be that some sort of tradeoff is going to be required. So, ask yourself: which do you care about more…your arteries or the orangutans? (“Pssst! You’ve got cookie crumbs on your tie!”)

3) The main reason that Girl Scouts USA makes such a good target for criticism (in addition to its prominence) is of course precisely the organization’s clean-cut, do-gooding image. In other words, the organization is vulnerable to criticisms that would simply be shrugged off by whatever anonymous company makes the cookies sold in the bulk-food aisle of the grocery store. The Girl Scouts have an image to protect, and, other things being equal, this means they are more likely to be responsive to pressure. But then, that image has been earned, and critics may well find that the public would rather continue to support a favourite charitable organization than learn about a new set of ethical issues focused on the effects such support could have in far-away lands. That doesn’t mean that the anti-cookie campaign can’t get traction. It just means that when the battle is good cause versus good cause, the outcome is hard to predict, and it’s not clear whether there can even be winners.

Hat tip to NW, for pointing me to this excellent story.

Employment, Smokers, and Fundamental Ethical Conflicts

I’ve seen two interesting stories recently about smokers — of various kinds — facing trouble with their employers. Both stories raise difficult, perhaps intractable, ethical difficulties, because in both cases the objectives sought by employers are, on the face of things, entirely reasonable; and yet the freedoms sought by employees in these cases are also, I think, very reasonable ones to seek.

First, this piece by A.G. Sulzberger for the NY Times: Hospitals Shift Smoking Bans to Smoker Ban

…More hospitals and medical businesses in many states are adopting strict policies that make smoking a reason to turn away job applicants, saying they want to increase worker productivity, reduce health care costs and encourage healthier living….

I’ve blogged about this issue before. (See: “Smokers Need Not Apply”, from January of 2009.) My conclusion back then was that an employer, no matter how well-intentioned, has no right to tell employees what to do on their own time. They have a right to demand a certain level of performance on the job, and that might have implications for what employees do at home. But what employers have a right to is performance, rather than to a particular lifestyle in pursuit of that performance. Besides, there are lots (and lots and lots) of things employees can do at home that will limit their performance at work. I don’t see smoking as being unique among those, and letting employers screen for (and monitor?) all such behaviours would obviously constitute a massive invasion of privacy.

And then there’s this Reuters piece, reported by Clare Baldwin: Wal-Mart employee fired for medical pot loses case

A federal judge in Michigan on Friday upheld Wal-Mart Stores Inc’s dismissal of an employee for testing positive for marijuana, even though he was using the drug under the state’s medical marijuana law.

Former Wal-Mart employee Joseph Casias said he was using the marijuana to treat pain from an inoperable brain tumor and sinus cancer, and was doing so legally, with a medical marijuana registry card…

This one is trickier because the implications of marijuana — cannabis — for workplace performance are much clearer. Pot (even pot prescribed for very good reasons by a physician) is very likely to affect judgment. And the effects of smoking it can last 2-3 hours — so smoking just before work, or during a break, could reasonably be expected to have a negative impact on performance. But in the case above, the employee involved had what sound like very good reasons, if ever there were any. Wal-Mart is a company that is trying hard to polish its image, and firing people for trying to deal with the pain from their inoperable brain tumor seems inconsistent with that objective.

For me, this is one of those short news stories that immediately makes me wonder what’s really going on here. Is the employee one of “those” employees that a company looks for reasons to fire? Or was his manager an unsympathetic jerk? Or what? Because surely this is an issue that could have been sorted out among reasonable adults, without resorting to lawyers. Could the worker be moved to a position where the possible effects of at-home cannabis use would not be as problematic? Could the employee agree to limit the hours during which he would use cannabis, in return for an exemption from the company’s testing regimen? I don’t know the answer. But living and working together means that we find ways of getting along together, even when we cannot find ways of agreeing.

Steve Jobs’ Health & a CEO’s Privacy

How much privacy does a CEO deserve? Is his or her health a private matter, or a matter that should be open to the scrutiny of the public (and, in particular, of the investing public)?

See, for example, this piece by Miguel Helft, at the NYT: Jobs Takes Sick Leave at Apple Again, Stirring Questions

Steven P. Jobs, the visionary co-founder and chief executive of Apple, is taking a medical leave of absence, a year and a half after his return following a liver transplant. The leave raises questions about both his long-term prognosis and the leadership of the world’s most valuable technology company….

So, should Jobs tell all, letting shareholders and potential shareholders (and other stakeholders?) just what’s up with his health, so that everyone can adjust their decision-making accordingly? Some say a CEO has as might right to privacy as anyone else. Others say a CEO’s obligation to be transparency overrides that.

As Slate’s Annie Lowrey tells us:

While publicly traded corporations need to disclose events and changes that might “materially” affect the company, the Securities and Exchange Commission does not specifically require disclosures about CEO health. That vagueness in the law means that Apple has remained within the letter of the law with its disclosures….

I don’t have a strong view on this, but here are some thoughts:

1) Information is good; it’s what lets markets operate more rather than less efficiently. But a big part of what matters most is equal access to information, and so far there’s no worry about that here, as far as I can see. (It may be that some are worried that top insiders will trade Apple’s stock based on their insider knowledge. Doing so would probably be illegal, and hence very dangerous.)

2) Health is a spectrum. There are people in the pink of health, and people on death’s doorstep, and everything in between. All CEOs are somewhere on that spectrum, and there’s simply no clear line beyond which a CEO’s health becomes a worry. So if Steve Jobs needs to disclose his diagnosis, the same likely goes for all CEOs (and other senior executives?) Note also that medical prognosis is as much art as science. So even if, say, Jobs were to reveal that his doctors were giving him a year to live — well, frankly, that could mean he’d be dead in a month or in 5 years. We have good evidence that doctors just aren’t good at making those estimates.

3) The basic, crucial info — that Jobs has ongoing health problems, likely quite serious ones — is already out there. As a former SEC chair Arthur Levitt says,

Jobs going on medical leave sends a message to the market,” Levitt continues. “An intelligent investor should know the risks of Jobs having a relapse. For the board to opine on what the extent of the illness is right now I don’t think is really necessary.”

In the end, I guess I’m most worried about the slippery slope, here. There are lots of things investors could want to know, and lots of things they could argue they need to know. But that doesn’t mean we want to push on down that road.

UNICEF’s Deal With Cadbury: A Trick, or a Treat?

This is now an entire genre of ethics stories, involving a charity facing criticism for aligning itself with a corporate sponsor whose values seem inconsistent with its own.

Here’s the story, by Carly Weeks, for the Globe and Mail: UNICEF sold out by making deal with Cadbury, medical journal says

One of the world’s most influential medical journals is accusing UNICEF Canada of selling out its values by allowing candy giant Cadbury to use its logo to sell Halloween candy.
In an editorial published online Saturday, the Lancet slammed UNICEF Canada for accepting $500,000 from Cadbury Adams Canada Inc. over a three-year period for construction of schools in Africa in exchange for allowing the company to plaster the iconic – and valuable – UNICEF logo on millions of product packages a year….

Just a few thoughts:

1) It seems to me that the worry expressed in the editorial is really that UNICEF is promoting candy, and candy is unhealthy. I’m no marketing expert, but I strongly suspect that if UNICEF’s tacit endorsement does anything at all, it won’t be to boost anyone’s consumption of candy. Rather, it will be to increase sales of Cabury’s candy relative to other brands.

2) Candy isn’t evil. Eating too much candy, too often, is bad for you. But candy is fun. While obesity trends are not irrelevant, here, I’m not sure we need to demonize candy to such an extent that all association with it is considered toxic.

3) It’s worth thinking carefully about the mutual benefits that come from the UNICEF/Cadbury deal. As the G&M story points out,

“the relationship is…lucrative for corporate sponsors because many consumers look favourably on companies that are aligned with good causes, which can help drive sales.”

But why do consumers look favourably on companies that align themselves with good causes? To spell it out plainly, consumers do so because they think that it is a good thing for companies to contribute socially. So it’s not like there’s any trickery here. If consumers think Cadbury is doing something good, Cadbury will be rewarded.

4) Finally, is it worth it for UNICEF? I’m generally hesitant to hand out advice beyond my expertise. I’m not an experienced fund-raiser. So, far be it from me to tell the experts at UNICEF that the decision to align with a candy company is short-sighted. But it does seem plain to me that a charity only has one real asset: it’s brand, and the trust people place in it. In comparison, a carmaker can lose public trust and then regain it by proving that they really do make a great product. Charities make no product; all the public can judge is behaviour.

Happy hallowe’en, everyone!

California’s Marijuana Industry: Ethical Issues

I’ve blogged about the insurance industry, the mining industry, the auto industry, even the donut industry. But the pot industry? Yes, it’s time.

From the Sacramento Bee: Growth of California’s Pot Industry is Good News for Unions

As Californians prepare to vote on a November ballot initiative that would expand legalization to recreational pot use, labor groups see the potential for perhaps tens of thousands of unionized jobs.

United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 5, which has 32,000 members in California working in trades including the grocery and food processing industries, began organizing marijuana “bud tenders,” greenhouse workers, packagers and laboratory technicians last spring….

So, here a budding industry, built around a controversial product that is illegal in most jurisdictions. There’s plenty of grass-root support for broader legalization (both for medicinal and recreational use). But there may be enough opposition to blunt the enthusiasm of law-makers about sudden moves. The support of politically-powerful unions is another ethically-significant factor — as is the potential capture of this new industry by unions.

This is such a rich and interesting story that there’s too much in it for me to try to hash it out by myself without resorting to quick, potted answers. So here are a handful of questions to seed the discussion. I’ll let you weed the good from the bad.

  • Ryan Grim reports that “The teachers union, citing the revenue that could be raised for the state, is also backing the initiative.” Is that sufficient reason? You don’t have to be an anti-pot puritan to worry about anything that might (inadvertently) encourage use of pot by school-age kids.
  • What business ethics issues are faced by producers and sellers of pot in the illegitimate parts of the drug industry? What new issues will the newly-legitimized industry face?
  • What CSR-type responsibilities does the (expanding) legal marijuana industry have?
  • Why are California Beer & Beverage Distributors lobbying against the proposed change? (See useful discussion over at Marginal Revolution).
  • What sorts of regulations should the industry seek? What motives will be foremost in industry’s mind in his regard — protecting revenues? protecting its image? protecting consumers?
  • Will the other drug industry — the pharmaceutical industry — move into this line of business? Why or why not?
  • Is the unionization of this industry generally a good or bad thing? Unionization improves the lot of workers, but also tends to raise prices. Since unionization itself is controversial, let’s ask it this way: is the case for unionization stronger or weaker, with regards to the marijuana industry?

I’ll open the floor for discussion.

Consumers’ Right to Information

Over on my Food Ethics Blog, I recently posted a piece on the oft-proclaimed “right to know what I’m eating.” That right is often asserted, but seldom explained. Do we have a right to know everything about what we’re eating? Basically I argue that rights are a very serious kind of moral mechanism, to be used only to protect our most important, central interests.

Now, that blog entry was specifically about the right to know about your food. The (claimed or actual) right to information about your food is of course just one among many (claimed or actual) rights for consumers to know things about the products they’re buying.

Now, sometimes rights arise from government action: under food labelling laws in Canada and the U.S., for example, consumers have a right to know the basic nutritional characteristics — including calories — of the packaged foods they buy. So, does this right follow the pattern I suggested above? Is knowing the precise caloric content of a serving of Special K, or the amount of niacin it contains, essential to protecting or promoting my central interests? Clearly not. But take note: I’m not at all saying it’s not useful information; it clearly is. But people did manage to get by in life prior to such labelling rules. So having that information isn’t essential to protecting an individual’s interests.

Now, some will think this is a counter-example to the (very basic) theory of rights I proposed in my food info blog entry. Here, we have a socially-acknowledged right to a piece of information (calories in your breakfast cereal), despite the fact that it’s a piece of information that is hardly essential to my well-being.

But I think a better lesson can be drawn, here, and that’s that well-justified consumer-protection laws (like nutritional labelling laws) aren’t necessarily designed to protect the rights of individuals. They’re better thought of as being designed to promote the well-being of populations. Knowing how many calories are in a bowl of Special K might not be essential to protecting my interests. But (so the thinking goes) there’s a good chance that forcing companies to reveal that information will result in a more calorie-aware population, which is a good result.

The distinction ‘under the hood,’ here, is an important one. Sometimes we attribute rights to individuals (e.g., the right to a piece of information) because we think that right is owed, morally, to that person. And sometimes we attribute rights to individuals instrumentally, as ways of achieving broader social goals.

I’ll likely return to this set of issues soon. There are lots of things consumers have an interest in knowing. For example, I’d love for the stereo salesperson at Best Buy to tell me if a competitor sells the same item cheaper. Do I have the right to that info? Stay tuned.

Wind Turbine Hush Money

In Oregon, the “whoosh, whoosh, whoosh” of wind turbines is being partly drowned out by another sound: “Hush, hush, hush….”

What are we to think when a company starts paying people substantial sums of money not to complain about the effects of their projects? Is that illicit hush money, or is it a company facing up to its impact and paying due compensation?

Here’s the story, by William Yardley, for the New York Times: Turbines Too Loud? Here, Take $5,000.

IONE, Ore. — Residents of the remote high-desert hills near here have had an unusual visitor recently, a fixer working out the kinks in clean energy.

Patricia Pilz of Caithness Energy, a big company from New York that is helping make this part of Eastern Oregon one of the fastest-growing wind power regions in the country, is making a tempting offer: sign a waiver saying you will not complain about excessive noise from the turning turbines — the whoosh, whoosh, whoosh of the future, advocates say — and she will cut you a check for $5,000.

“Shall we call it hush money?” said one longtime farmer, George Griffith, 84. “It was about as easy as easy money can get….”

The effects that a production process (such as a wind farm) has on people other than its paying customers are what are called “externalities” — effects that are external to some voluntary transaction. And in principle, compensating those who suffer externalities is the right thing to do — it means that a company (and its customers) are paying something closer to the full cost of production. Otherwise, externalities amount to a cost foisted on someone else involuntarily.

OK: so far, so good. The company involved here is attempting to (as an economist would put it) internalize its externalities, by compensating those affected by noise from its windmills. But what about the price set? Note that the price was an apparently invariable $5,000. Why? After all, different people are likely to be affected differently, and some will be more noise-tolerant than others.
So, why one price? According to the company, the reason is fairness:

“What we don’t do in general is change the market price for a waiver,” [Caithness Energy’s] Ms. Pilz said. “That’s not fair.”

Of course, equal payment for all is one version of fairness, but it’s not the only one.

One last theme to pick up on is the tension between what’s good for the individual and what’s good for society. The company involved, here, attempted to play the “social good” card:

Some people who did not sign said that Ms. Pilz made them feel uncomfortable, that she talked about how much Shepherd’s Flat would benefit the struggling local economy and the nation’s energy goals, and that she suggested they were not thinking of the greater good if they refused.

It’s a good rhetorical move on the company’s part, not least because there’s more than a grain of truth to it. A project of this size is bound to benefit the local economy (though perhaps not as much as locals might hope). Add to that the fact that this is, after all, clean energy that’s being produced, the kind of energy that most people now figure is essential to weaning us off our collective addiction to petroleum products.

So, let’s put this on the table as a fundamental truth: there are no centralized forms of energy production, clean or otherwise, that will not have a negative impact on anyone, and that hence won’t be subject to someone’s objections. So the question is not whether anyone will be negatively affected (or even merely inconvenienced), but rather who will be negatively affected, and how much, and what to do about it.

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