Keep the Public in Public Health
and Robert Weissman
The great thing about the American Public Health Association (APHA) is in its name -- it's about public health -- what we as a society do to assure the conditions in which people can be healthy.
If we were to choose a steward for the public health, we would, without hesitation, choose the APHA over, say, the American Medical Association (AMA).
In one sad example in 1997, the AMA cut a deal to endorse Sunbeam medical products in return for royalty payments in the millions. This policy seemed to say, "Not only are we in favor of turning health care over to for-profit corporations, we are in favor of turning our organization over to for-profit corporations." (Following a huge public outcry, that deal was eventually rescinded and the AMA vice president who cut the deal resigned in disgrace.)
But it is the APHA which stands for public health.
We were thinking about this the other day, walking past APHA's gorgeous new $13 million headquarters building in the Chinatown section of Washington, D.C. We went into the lobby, said hello to the staff, and picked up the annual report.
Wherein, we learned that earlier this year, the APHA accepted a $1 million grant from Colgate Palmolive, that consumer giant that brings you Colgate toothpaste, Irish Spring soap, Palmolive dishwashing soap, Speed Stick deodorant.
According to the annual report, the money was used, in part, to launch a national public health education campaign, "Lather Up for Good Health." Under the campaign, APHA and Colgate Palmolive distributed 100,000 "handwashing posters."
At a press conference in Washington, D.C. last week, we ran into Mohammed Akhter, APHA's executive director.
We wanted to know what he thought Colgate Palmolive's interest was in donating $200,000 a year over five years.
"We do not accept money with any strings attached," Akhter said. "They gave us the money to do education about maternal-child health."
"So they get nothing directly," Akhter said. "They gave us the money to do education about maternal-child health. So, one interest is goodwill -- the company gets on the good side of mothers and children. And through this they sell more of their products -- toothpaste, soaps and such."
Isn't he concerned about undue influence of a giant private corporation over an organization designed to promote "public" health?
"Business is America," Akhter said. "America's whole structure is built on business. But we say that if there are funds that come to us from a corporation that has a bad environmental record, has poor public health practices, poor occupational practices, poor labor practices, we will not accept the money. Or if there is a string attached, we will not accept the money. If someone tells me, 'Sell my sugar and I will give you a million dollars,' I will say no."
Akhter said that he was approached recently by GlaxoWellcome. The multinational pharmaceutical giant wanted to donate $100,000 a year for two or three years.
Akhter said that Glaxo's involvement with the drug industry's efforts to block widespread use of HIV/AIDS drugs in the Third World eliminated the company from consideration. "We said we will not do this," Akhter said. "Don't come to us looking for support for this drug issue."
Akhter said that Eli Lilly has given $30,000 or so a year for a number of years. And Merck donates the bags to carry the programs and other materials for APHA's 30,000 members at its annual convention.
Many members of APHA are concerned about the organization's upcoming first ever fund raising campaign to help pay for the building and APHA's $12 million a year budget.
Frank Goldsmith, professor of health policy at SUNY Stonybrook, is a former APHA executive board member. Goldsmith believes that APHA should build the organization, not by raking in corporate dollars, but by aggressively pushing a public health agenda and bringing in new members.
"I'm not opposed to getting five or ten thousand from companies who are involved in health care as nutritional organizations, or as food organizations, or insurance companies," he told us. "But when you start talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars or millions, then that becomes a big chunk of the budget and that becomes a problem. You start relying on that money. And APHA executive board members, well-meaning public health people who are worried about the survival of their organization, will be swayed to take the money and take the organization in a direction away from public health."
Akhter said that he heard from "less than 2 percent of the membership" after news of the Colgate Palmolive $1 million grant broke telling him, "be careful."
"Nobody said, 'We don't want the money.' They said, 'Be careful. APHA is not for sale.'"
But we are concerned that by accepting the $1 million from Colgate Palmolive, the message has been sent: if not for sale, then for rent.
Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor. They are co-authors of Corporate Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy (Common Courage Press, 1999, http://www.corporatepredators.org).