The Damage Lobbyists Do To Public Health

21st October 2016 / EU

By Graham Vanbergen – “We need to fight against lobbyists”, Slovenian Euro-commissioner Janez Potočnik stated resolutely three years ago, which was labelled “the year of air quality” by the EU. He was addressing a Brussels group of Euro-parliamentarians, European ministers and civic organizations. Potočnik was quite rightly being overtly assertive concerning clean air. He knew what the hard data from his own statistics authority was saying.

“Air pollution is the number one environmental cause of premature death in the EU, responsible for ten times the toll of road traffic accidents”, wrote the environment department.

Statistics produced in 2010 ended up concluding that 400,000 had succumbed to early deaths due to air pollution. Potočnik found that unacceptable: the air that European citizens breathe would have to be much, much cleaner by 2030.

In December 2013, Potočnik’s proposed directive went into what is known by lobbyists as the “black box”, the European decision-making process that for the most part is invisible to the outside world. When the directive finally emerged at the end of last year, ambitions for ammonia had been watered down, methane stripped out of the directive completely – the proposal was only a shadow of what Potočnik had envisioned in 2013. Now, just slightly less than 400,000 would lose their lives over the next twenty years as a result.

This is typical of government’s around the world, where much of the legislation we see today is affected by the privileged access and influence enjoyed by corporations and their lobby groups. This corporate capture of decision-making leads to policies that only increases social injustice and accelerates environmental destruction across the world.

For instance, in the EU, what in Brussels is referred to as the “agro-lobby” is an organization called Copa-Cogeca. This group represents the interests of the European agriculture sector. They were allowed into the design phase of legislation and what happened there is exemplary of how the fight for air quality in Europe is going. Moreover, it was there, very early on in the process stage, that the directive suffered its most important blows.

Lobbyists, those shadowy agitators lurking in the corridors of power are the paid persuaders whose work it is to overturn public interest legislation or its proposals and influence the outcome in favour of corporate interests or profits.  Adopting a range of tried-and-tested tactics and flush with funds, their modus operandi is to work in secret to continually push politicians to make decisions that big business enjoys the benefit of, irrespective of the damage it does to the environment, public health, employment rights or the like.

The tactics they use are numerous; they can sponsor a think tank who prepares research in their favour, buy in credibility, flood the internet with propaganda and constantly entice politicians and decision makers with lucrative revolving door jobs that keeps the industry well oiled and working like clockwork.

The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) is a good example. When the Conservatives arrived in power in 2010, Andrew Lansley took the reigns as Health Secretary and immediately embarked on radical reforms that an unsuspecting public were largely unaware of. As negative information leaked of privatisation plans, campaign groups, often led by doctors and healthcare workers emerged and were supported by millions of citizens. An action plan was required by ministers to turn the NHS into a privatised business model, without public resistance.

The Daily Mail has been a vociferous campaigner for privatisation of the NHS with non-stop barrage of negative stories of the NHS

The Daily Mail appears to be a vociferous campaigner for privatisation of the NHS with apparent non-stop barrage of negative stories of the NHS

In 2011, Mark Britnall, Chairman and Partner of the Global Health Practice at KPMG said at an investors conference: “the NHS will be shown no mercy and the best time to take advantage of this will be in the next couple of years.” Britnall, a former advisor to David Cameron mobilised the industry. Its Chief lobbyist got the wheels in motion and the tried and tested strategies were implemented. Amongst the tactics, right-wing newspapers went on the offensive as they still are today.

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As if proof was needed, The Guardian reported in July last year: “The authors of a major report on changes to NHS hospitals failed to declare that a lobbying network for the private healthcare industry was on its advisory panel.”

The consequences were manifestly evident soon after. Corporate healthcare profits soared. The private healthcare industry has doubled in the last four years alone, feeding off the back of the NHS and now earning £18m a day.

There is still no evidence that the private sector is any better, more efficient or cost effective than the NHS. To the contrary, there have been some spectacular contract failures no better demonstrated than the private health company Circle, who pulled out of running Hinchingrbooke Hospital just 3 years into a 10 year contract as it wasn’t making enough money and received a damning CQC report, the first ever hospital to be rated inadequate in patient care.

Fracking is another controversial business that requires the efforts of mass lobbying to beat down public opinion and public interest groups. As SpinWatch puts it: “It’s well known that the shale gas industry has spent millions on PR trying to sway public opinion in its favour. Less visible is the extraordinary political influence it potentially wields via some of the world’s most controversial lobbying firms. From heavyweight mega-firms Burson-Marsteller and Bell Pottinger to Edelman, Hill & Knowlton and Weber Shandwick, all employ ex-political staff or have ex-colleagues now in plum government roles.”

This is demonstrated no better than by Tara Singh. According to SpinWatch, Singh, David Cameron’s energy adviser in Number 10, did a short stint as senior associate director at Hill & Knowlton (H+K Strategies), a firm infamous for helping Big Tobacco deny the link between smoking and cancer for decades, which in recent years has pocketed millions for its efforts in selling fracking to the US public and its politicians. Once described by an ex-employee as ‘a company without a moral rudder’, H+K ran the UK All-party Parliamentary Group on ‘Unconventional Oil and Gas’. It was founded to ‘debate and explore the potential’ for developing such reserves and membership of this group offers the frackers easy backdoor access to Westminster’s MPs.

According to a YouGov poll last year public sentiment towards fracking was rapidly declining with less than a third of the population favouring it as a method to extract domestic energy resource. To legitimise fracking in the face of such anger, lobbyists are at work in the background. And there is a seemingly never-ending list of revolving door connections between corporations and government minsters and their ‘middlemen’ as detailed HERE.

Brexit was in part a vote by the general public that opposes the neoliberal phenomena of lobbying. In the heart of Brussels, where the EU Commission rubber stamps thousands of legislative decisions, well over 500 million people in the bloc are effectively silenced by corporate lobbyists. This is amply demonstrated by the TTIP and CETA negotiations that are scandalous by any stretch of the imagination.

According to Corporate Europe Observatory, within the EU, on average, TTIP negotiations with lobbyists get 92 percent of access, public interest groups get 4 percent, the balance are independent professional consultancies.

A statement by the Chemicals lobby (CEFIC) in May 2015 highlights exactly the point being made. CEFIC’s then Director-General Hubert Mandery boasted that CEFIC’s proposals on TTIP “have largely been taken over by the European Commission.”

The Pesticides lobby (ECPA-Croplife) predicted the same: “If adopted, the pesticide industry proposal in TTIP would increase the amount of pesticide residue on food sold to consumers in Europe; allow the use of carcinogens, endocrine (hormone) disrupting chemicals (EDCs) and other toxic pesticides; and interfere with efforts to protect bees and other pollinators to safeguard food supplies for future generations.”

The EU Commission is even now stating that it would accept banned chemicals in cosmetics, which would significantly risk lowering safety standards in the EU. More than 1,300 substances are prohibited in cosmetics in the EU, while only 11 are in the US. Many of these substances are dangerous to human health including, for instance, lead.

How does the EU propose to get away with this? While producing lipstick that contains lead would still be illegal in the EU, US companies will still be able to export it to the EU as long as it passes US safety tests. If a government subsequently decides to legislate against that ingredient or product, the corporations can then sue for loss of profits. This is how the TTIP trade agreement works. This is lobbying at its finest hour.

TTIP is the largest trade deal in the history of humanity – it will account for up to 40 per cent of global trade. The stakes are high which is why the role of lobbying exists in the first place – that is, to put profit in front of public health irrespective of the consequences.

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