The Smoking Gun: Evidence of Globalization’s Negative Impact on Health
The impact of economic globalization on the wellbeing of humanity is much debated. Those who champion it—and even those who are trying to objectively understand its pros and the cons—often complain that the vehement protest against globalization lacks unequivocal evidence. There are, however, clear examples where the harmful impact of global economic policies is irrefutable.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), smoking is one of the biggest health problems of our times. While cigarette consumption has diminished in the US and to a lesser extent in Europe due to public education about its harm, in much of the world tobacco use is increasing. This is especially true in underdeveloped countries and Eastern Europe, where multinational tobacco firms have intensified their marketing.
The WHO states that smoking has become one of the biggest causes of death in the world. It predicts that if current global trade policies remain unaltered, by 2020, tobacco will contribute to over 10 million deaths annually. The biggest increase in deaths from smoking is predicted to take place in China.
In the mid-1990s, Dr. Carl Taylor, then working with UNICEF, helped organize a national survey which showed that 60% of men in China smoked. By contrast, only 4% of women were smokers. Since then, with increased awareness of the huge societal costs of smoking, the Health Ministry has tried to reduce tobacco use among citizens, but it has been an uphill battle. The biggest problem has been the powerful leverage of the tobacco industry, coupled with a conflict of interest within the Chinese government. The tobacco transnationals, especially those based in the US, now target China as potentially their biggest and fastest-growing market. Their main target for new smokers is adolescents of both sexes, especially the potential market of young women. By promoting brands like “Virginia Slims” as status symbols of the modern, sexy, liberated, forever youthful woman, the industry aims to hook tens of millions of China’s women on tobacco. For many, this will be a death sentence. Despite this, influenced by powerful lobbying, international law generally supports the multinationals.
The Health Ministry has made efforts to oppose the promulgation of tobacco. Recently it prohibited smoking in public places (although this rule has yet to be well enforced). The Ministry also wants to outlaw both import and advertising of foreign tobacco products. But because of the temptation and pressures of an increasingly globalized market, such attempts have been stymied.
A complicating factor is China’s bid to join the WTO. The government feels compelled to join in order to sustain its current torrid rate of economic growth. But to do so, China will be forced to comply with the WTO’s trade liberalization rulings, including deregulation of tobacco import and advertising. The transnational giants will be allowed to promote and sell their addictive carcinogens in China using the tools of modern marketing to artificially stimulate demand.
Another complication is that many Chinese economists oppose a decline in tobacco consumption, because the biggest source of government revenue in China is the tobacco tax. To offset this, the health ministry has proposed a steep increase in the tax. Studies in several countries have shown that when the tax rises, cigarette consumption drops. The theory is that if China’s tobacco tax is doubled, cigarette smoking will drop by half, keeping tax revenue much the same.
Clearly, an increase in the tax makes sense in terms of both revenue and health. However, under the influence of the tobacco industry, the WTO has stipulated that China must actually cut its tobacco tax, to half of current rates. The resulting price drop will increase consumption with no corresponding increase in gov’t revenue. Thus, the Chinese population faces a health disaster.
Despite the magnitude of this upcoming tragedy, it is important to realize that this is not a singular event. The situation in China is just one example illustrating the general trend in which giant corporations in many industries continue to reshape the social and natural environment to maintain profitability. In this scheme, people are either resources or markets. This is not a rabid indictment, rather it is simply an observation based on countless documented incidents, and it is easily inferred from knowledge of the legal structure of corporations. They are designed to organize the conversion of “inputs” into profits, reward stockholders, i.e., absentee owners, and protect those owners and the management from legal responsibility for the consequences of business decisions (“limited liability”). So it is no surprise that such an entity, especially one which has grown beyond its managers’ ability to fully comprehend or control it, has no capacity or methodology with which to value human life and human needs. How to quantify the agony of men and women dying from cancer? How to factor in our collective loss of their dreams and companionship and talents? But life, it seems, does not compute.
How to Change the Global System?
Can such massive human sacrifice to the juggernaut of free-market development be avoided? To create a livable future will require at first reforms, and in the long run a sweeping transformation of the dominant globalized economic system, of the basic rules of the game. Such change will require a global movement of well-informed people.
To those of us who are committed to building healthy communities for a sustainable future, it is becoming apparent that action at the local level is essential but not enough. Time and again, we see the local advances we have worked for swept aside by global imbalances. Therefore many of us who have believed that Small is Beautiful and have devoted our lives to enablement at the local level, have had to revise our thinking. Though we recognize our efforts are but one more grain of sand, we feel we must actively take part in global efforts to transform the current inequitable and unsustainable model of globalized “development”.
The first step in working toward reforming—and eventually transforming—the unhealthy and unfair aspects of the global free-market system is to encourage awareness on the part of more people at every societal level. Many more people need to understand that the multitude of problems that society faces are much more inter-related than they currently suppose. They must understand how short-sighted economic policies affect their daily lives and endanger them and their families. They need the basic analytic skills to comprehend how corporate dollars purchase public elections, undermine democratic process, and put profit before people and the environment. With this new understanding, people around the world can join together to demand election financing reforms so as to gain a stronger voice in the decisions that affect their lives. They can mobilize to elect officials who put healthy and sustainable well-being as both a local and global priority.
Such an awakening to the realities of our time by a critical number of the world’s people will require a huge coordinated effort. The challenge is more daunting because the mass media are owned by the very corporations we aim to curb. Therefore it is essential that progressive NGOs, and anyone working toward sustainable change at the local level, also make a concerted effort to raise widespread awareness about the real nature of the obstacles facing us, and to build and participate in international coalitions for systemic change.
In sum, it is no longer enough to “think globally and act locally.” To reach a livable future we now must “think and act both locally and globally.”
Unless our immediate efforts to enable marginalized peoples or conserve endangered ecosystems at the local level go hand-in-hand with a longterm strategy to transform our dangerously inequitable and unsustainable global market system, our local endeavors will likely come to naught.
Nevertheless, local empowerment and action is still at the heart of equitable, sustainable development. Helping people in immediate danger find ways to cope with hunger, poverty, and crushing social structures necessarily comes before and along with long-term strategies to reform the overarching unfair system. But today, more than ever, we must keep the big picture in mind. When we evaluate coping strategies at the local level, we must continually ask ourselves to what extent this local coping strategy contributes to building healthier, more sustainable structures and policies at the national and international level. Without far-reaching macro change, hard-won local changes can be short-lived. Given the endangered biosphere, we cannot seriously talk about sustainable change at the community level without also pursuing structural change at the global level.