The decision of the Cancer Society to attempt to block the local tobacco industry from funding local events or companies is a welcome and a not entirely expected one in the context of funding for local associations and NGOs. “There are no circumstances under which it is appropriate to collaborate with or take money from tobacco companies,” said the chairman of the Cancer Society, Dr George Laquis. “We are dealing with an industry that kills its customers,” he went on to say. Strong words but true words. As a medical doctor and columnist, I feel gratified that someone else is finally calling a spade a spade. It has always bothered me, this cosy relationship that so many NGOs and professional societies, medical including, have with the junk industry. The idea that if we are nice to them, they will “nice” us back. The arrogant belief that we, the part-timers, the voluntary members, involved in service to the public, always scrunting, will be able to handle them, the pros, the full-timers, cash up to their eyeballs, backed by endless lawyers and psychologists and MBAs, with little to do each day but drive around in their BMWs, drink coffee and plot how to get us to agree to collaborate with them. I used to believe in that relationship too, when I was younger and less experienced. Perhaps you have to be young and gullible to take on the sweet talk and perks that dealing with industry offers.
I would take the free trips. Nothing big, but enough. No trips to the Swiss Alps or the Far East but one to Bariloche, up in the mountains of Argentina, at Mr Soros’s huge mountain chalet, perched on the edge of a lake and surrounded by snow-covered peaks to hear the Chief Medical Officer of Great Britain speak about hepatitis vaccines. What did I bring back? Nada. Nothing. Zilch. At least I refused the one to Puerto Rico where the drug rep suggested, with a wink and a smirk, that I could take “a dietitian” of my choice with me. The Alcoholic Association of T&T used to intrigue me. Every year they would take money from one of the rum companies and have a big “get together” in the Bahamas. The rum money was used to take their alcoholics, psychologists, social workers and resident psychiatrist to a hotel in Nassau for a week of lectures, conferences and so on, where they were told how bad rum was. No one seemed to find anything wrong with this and it went on for years. Did the money ever help anybody? Is there less alcohol drinking today in T&T? The rum company certainly got enough publicity from its sponsorship. At the time I suppose it seemed an easy decision. Take the rum money and help people stop drinking. Easy solution! Quick, easy solutions have a tendency to backfire and not work. Taking the long hard road may cost more initially, but usually pays off in the end. Industry-health partnerships, for “the benefit of the public,” are said to be the next big thing in medicine and I am scared sick of what may happen.
The World Health Organisation, deeply concerned about non-communicable diseases (NCDs), has taken a decision to forge partnerships with everyone and anyone to help improve health. The rationale is that to prevent premature deaths and to reduce exposure to risk factors for NCDs, mainly tobacco use, harmful use of alcohol, unhealthy diets and physical inactivity, sectors other than health must become involved. Those who contributed to the problem must become part of the solution. Idealistic and completely impractical as the idea is (which businessman is going to stop making his best-selling junk because it is unhealthy?), it must seem attractive to the doctors who sit down in comfortable chairs high up on the top floors of skyscrapers and pretend to have street smarts. So we will have scenes such as what we recently saw during the Bocas Literary Festival where wonderful reading sessions were held for children at KFC outlets. Nourish their little minds while we fill their little bodies with junk food? Or we will have conferences put on by infant formula companies to tell people how best to feed their babies. The motto could be: “Breast is best, but...when you can’t, here is our milk.” Never mind that infant formula is associated with sicker children and adults and just about any illness one can think of. Or how to lose weight for Carnival by drinking extra milk, complete with photos of sexy looking chicks drinking milk. The idea that health personnel will be able to make the junk industry adapt their business policies to improve people’s health is like inviting Dracula into the Blood Bank to make suggestions for improving the blood supply. One day we will wake up and find the blood gone and everybody dead. Dare I say it? Is this the final nail in the coffin?