The Fox Owns the Henhouse—When Public Safety is Governed by Private Profit

“There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.”― Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451

A couple of days ago I stumbled upon a radio interview where the topic was safety and government oversight. I had tuned in at the exact moment when the interviewee said the following:

Well, my experience of 30 years in Washington, D.C. is the same Ronald Reagan had – you know, trust but verify. And when bad things happen, you need to verify if what he is saying is correct. I certainly question that there’s not a cozy relationship. All anyone has to do is look at the revolving door in Washington, D.C., and this agency and the industry to realize that there is a cozy relationship. Now the question is, is that cozy relationship having an adverse impact on the safety decisions being made?

The American public would be surprised, and maybe even concerned, if they knew how widespread the practice of self-regulation was. 

Before I could ascertain what they were discussing in the interview, my mind began to race. Could it be clean water, Round Up pesticide lawsuits, climate change, vaccine safety, the opioid crisis? My question was quickly answered. The forum was an interview on National Public Radio(NPR) with former National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) chairman, James Hall, on the investigation into the recent tragedy of two Boeing 737 MAX airline crashes.  Upon a rewind of the interview, I kept hearing references to “revolving doors” and “cozy relationships.”

David Greene, host of the show, asked,

But are you saying there are documents that Boeing has showing that they’re – that the company and, potentially the FAA, knew that there were some problems, some of the very problems that may have caused these accidents, and that they certified the aircraft anyway?

Mr. Hall responded,

…the process that we presently have is a self-certification process by the manufacturer of the safety of the aircraft… what has happened is that these decisions have been made in commissions and rulemakings dominated by the industry in Washington, D.C.

As reported by NPR, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) left the safety testing of the plane to the manufacturing company (Boeing) and that this practice could be found “a lot” in the federal government. James Goodwin of the Center for Progressive Reform stated, “The American public would be surprised, and maybe even concerned, if they knew how widespread the practice of self-regulation was.” I wondered what implications this example might carry for aviation safety, agriculture, vaccine safety, and generally for the future of government oversight and scientific inquiry.

Toward the end of the interview, Mr. Greene from NPR stated that recently he had asked FAA head, Dan Elwell, some of the same questions. In one answer, Mr. Elwell responded, “the FAA is an agency that is based on data, and they very much make their decisions, including keeping those planes in the air, based on data.” Dan Elwell, is a former Vice President of the Aerospace Industries Association, representing the most powerful aerospace industry companies. There remain some very tough questions to be answered by the manufacturers of the airline industry, like Boeing, and the “cozy relationship” it and other industry members enjoy with the government agencies responsible for regulating its operations and overseeing its compliance with public safety. But, let’s move on from that thread of public air safety and pause for an overview of the opioid crisis facing the United States.

Public air safety to the opioid crisis

Earlier in March, the 13th to be precise, I saved a copy of the transcript from an interview between David Greene and Brian Mann, an NPR associate, who has been following developments in some of the lawsuits around the nation’s opioid crisis. In its introduction to the interview NPR reported,

The opioid epidemic claimed 70,000 lives in 2017. To put that in perspective, that is more than the number of people who died annually at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. And the pharmaceutical industry is going to spend much of this year answering some hard questions. Many blame pharma for our country’s opioid crisis. And this year, big drug makers, as well as pharmacy chains, are facing more than 1,500 lawsuits filed by state and local governments. Billions of dollars are at stake, and so are reputations. Johnson & Johnson, Purdue Pharma, CVS – those are just some of the companies targeted in these lawsuits.

The following are excerpts from the interview:

Greene: I mean that there are internal company documents that are being made public, and some of them have been controversial, you’ve been finding.

Mann: Purdue executives, for example, can be seen secretly acknowledging that their prescription opioids were far more addictive and dangerous than they were telling doctors. At the same time, company directives kept pushing sales, pushing the salespeople incredibly hard to get more opioids into the hands of vulnerable people, including seniors and military veterans….We’ve also learned that Purdue Pharma executives developed a secret plan they called Project Tango, which they allegedly hoped might help them profit again from the growing wave of opioid addiction. The idea here was to sell addiction treatment services to some of the same people addicted to products like their own OxyContin… Which means for more than a decade, no one in the wider public knew how serious the allegations against Purdue and these other drug companies were. But this time, states and cities suing these companies seem eager to sort of pull back the curtain… the drug industry has fought these disclosures at every turn. They describe the information in these documents as proprietary, basically arguing its corporate property. But as more and more information comes out, it’s making people angry.

On a related topic, Mr. Mann expressed:

But according to the drug company’s own documents, firms including Johnson & Johnson pushed unscientific theories about drug addiction. They did so allegedly to convince doctors to prescribe even more opioids after patients showed signs of dependency. David Armstrong, the reporter with ProPublica, says this kind of disclosure is making it harder for the industry to protect its image.

… ‘tobacco science;’ i.e. Science done on behalf of an interest defending its profits, like the science conducted by a cigarette company showing that cigarettes are safe.

Government agency collusion

Government agency collusion with different industries, to me, represented nothing short of corruption. I was reminded of the tobacco industry and how the Phillip Morris tobacco company organized its Boca Raton Action Plan in 1988, in an effort to “diffuse and re-orient” the voices and initiatives of those fighting tobacco in favor of public health. Also, how the World Health Organization (WHO) itself colluded with legal experts and doctors in the United States in favor of the tobacco industry and against public health. From this fiasco was coined the expression “tobacco science;” i.e. “Science” done on behalf of an interest defending its profits, like the science conducted by a cigarette company showing that cigarettes are safe.

And speaking of the WHO, I was also reminded of the 2009 H1N1 (swine flu) “pandemic.” In the spring of 2010, the Council of Europe was investigating the role of the WHO in declaring the H1N1 pandemic. Dr. Wolfgang Wodarg, an epidemiologist who at one time was head of the Health Committee of the Council of Europe, expressed concerns that the contracts for the vaccine were mostly confidential arrangements between the WHO, individual member states and the companies producing the vaccine. In fact, numerous countries, including Germany, France, Italy and Great Britain, entered into contracts with the vaccine manufacturing companies prior to the WHO’s declaration of an H1N1 pandemic. The contracts obligated these countries to purchase swine flu vaccinations under one condition: that the WHO issue a pandemic flu alert.

…undermined by the transformation of the relationship between scientists at universities, private industries with their scientists and the ‘cozy relationships’ that exist between the two

Transformed relationships

In his farewell speech to the citizenry, U. S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower poignantly expressed his concern regarding the future of science and its partnership with government, and government with industry, when he said:

…the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research…The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded. Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

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