Whilst on a short break I picked up the Times Newspaper on Friday the ninth of October. There were two headlines. The main one was ‘Fizzy drinks giant pays millions to diet experts.’ On the other side of the page was ‘Revolution for FIfa after Blatter gets red card.’
The fizzy drinks company was, of course, Coca Cola. I wondered why the headline did not say ‘Coca Cola pays millions to diet experts.’ Perhaps that was just a step too far to upsetting a major advertiser. Although I note that the picture of Sepp Blatter had a large Coca -Cola sign above his head. So, somebody at the Times clearly has a sense of humour.
Now I looked at these headlines and I thought, as I find myself doing most of the time nowadays. Corruption, corruption, corruption everywhere. Sepp Blatter is almost heroic in his ability to brush aside allegations against him and his organisation. ‘I knew nothing about anything.’ Seems to be his defence. Well, if he didn’t know anything he’s incompetent, if he did, he is corrupt. I suspect both.
As for Coca Cola. They just pay ‘experts’ large sums of money, and the expected messages flow forth. According to the Times article they set up the European Hydration Institute to promote… hydration. Which sounds quite innocuous and nothing to do with Coca-Cola at all.
However, guess which drinks people should hydrate themselves with. Why…. Let me think. They get a Professor Ron Maughan to state the dehydration was an ‘unrecognised danger’ for drivers. Drivers should regularly stop and buy drinks to ensure they are properly hydrated with drinks such as… Why… let me think.
Of course, by pretending the European Hydration Institute is some sort of independent academic body, such messages are not simply seen as adverts for Coca Cola, Oasis, and suchlike. This arm’s length marketing is a very old trick now. Heart UK is a charity which is dedicated to warning of the dangers of cholesterol. Heart UK ruthlessly promotes cholesterol lowering as the most important function of the medical profession. Of course it is almost entirely funded by pharmaceutical companies who make cholesterol lowering drugs. [I would say entirely funded, but I am not absolutely sure about this].
Various experts give talks on behalf of Heart UK, paid for by Heart UK, then claim they receive no money from the pharmaceutical industry. Which is, of course, technically correct. They do not receive money from the pharmaceutical industry. Heart UK receives money from the pharmaceutical industry, they then pay the expert, and the expert need not even declare a conflict of interest. ‘How dare you say that I take money from the pharmaceutical industry, you dirty knave…. I did this work for a charity. A charity I say.’
This is also how Sir Rory Collins works. He runs the Clinical Trial Service Unit (CTSU) in Oxford. It runs trials that are almost entirely funded by the pharmaceutical industry. Nearly three hundred million pounds sterling ($500m) over the last ten years or so. He states he receives no money from the pharmaceutical industry, and therefore is not biased in any way. Once again…Industry pays CTSU, CTSU pays Sir Rory Collins = no payment from industry and no conflicts of interest. And if you believe that.
Wherever you look. Wherever I look it is the same old story. Experts are inevitably bought and paid for by one company or another. The messages that come out are universally supportive of the company’s products. If you are not sufficiently supportive the companies will go find something else to turn into an ‘expert.’
As the Times reports ‘In 2013 Spanish researchers found that scientific papers on sugary drinks that were sponsored by or had potential conflicts of interest with the food and drink industry, including Coca-Cola were five times more likely to find no link with obesity than similar papers that were independently funded. They recommend “special efforts to preclude funding by parties with vested interests at all levels.’
In truth, I don’t care that much about Fifa and the endemic corruption thereof. If people can be bribed sufficiently to hold a World Cup in Qatar, average summer temperature 50c, the world is not going to come to an end. Although a few footballers might. Obviously, it would be better if the countries with the best bid actually won, but no-one is going to die. Probably.
However, if companies such as Coca-Cola can fund research that distorts science and promotes the consumption of sugary drink, and helps to create millions upon millions of people with type II diabetes then this is very serious stuff indeed. The increase in morbidly and mortality could end up bankrupting health services around the world.
I know that all organisations and companies, if they are not properly policed, will end up travelling the road to corruption. It seems an immutable law of commerce. In a way I don’t blame the companies. They are, by their nature wolves. If I have a thousand sheep in a field and find the wolves circling, I do not say the wolves, ‘now, really, I do not want you to eat the sheep. Do you promise?’
Wolves: ‘Yes, we promise.’
Next day, shepherd arrives, sheep mostly eaten, wolves fat. Well, what do you expect? Wolves eat sheep. It is what they do. If you want to stop this happening, build a bloody great fence, or buy some guns, or both. Don’t rely on wolves to suddenly start acting like sheepdogs.
No, I don’t blame the companies for being companies. I blame our politicians. It is only they who can create a system of policing and punishment that will stop companies corrupting researchers, or corrupt researchers demanding money from companies. Yes, this is not a one way street. You can’t have corruption if researchers don’t take bribes.
Unfortunately politicians seem perfectly uninterested in corruption in the medical field. Is it because they themselves are being bribed. I am certain that this is part of it. In the UK large numbers of MPs are non-exec directors of private health companies, and the corporate world swirls around and within the political arena far, far, too closely. Before the last election David Cameron stated that lobbying would be next great scandal.
He says nothing of the sort now, yet lobbying and manipulating on behalf of large corporations has become worse and worse. The UK has not yet reached the situation in the US where lobbyists outnumber politicians by about a hundred to one…. Or thereabouts. And when politicians stop being politicians they immediately become lobbyists. But we heading in that direction.
So where are we? A long, long way down the longest road. The road that ends with everyone in any position of power becoming, essentially, a spokesman for large corporations, where there is no-one left who can or will do anything to stop it. Because, sadly, they are all in it together. I write that last sentence and think, oops, have I just become a conspiracy theorist. Then I think. No, I am not a conspiracy theorist, I am simply Winston Smith.