Singer and Baer’s Killer Commodities

Killer Commodities: Public Health and the Corporate Production of Harm
Merrill Singer and Hans A. Baer, Editors
AltaMira Press, 2008
439 pages
US $ 34.95 (Paperback)

Reviewed by Mark Hill, Wayne State University

In Killer Commodities, Merrill Singer, Hans Baer, and fourteen other social scientists examine how detrimental effects associated with consumer goods persist despite U.S. and international regulations. Singer and Baer open with the observation that the circulation of commodified goods has expanded greatly as the globalized economy grows (ix). The editors point out that while this growth has generated new wealth (for some), it has done so at the expense of the health and safety of the consuming public. In an effort to clarify economic practices that often obscure liability while maximizing profits, Singer and Baer approach the issue of “killer commodities” through a critical perspective. They define “killer commodities” as “goods that are sold for profit that result, either directly during use, indirectly through their impact on the environment, or during manufacture on workers, in a notable burden of injuries to death” (2) – and it is from this broad description that the book begins. However, through individual case studies, the scope of the definition is narrowed and refined, drawing attention to the social, biological, and political aspects of how a product is manufactured, regulated, marketed, and finally consumed, sometimes with unhealthy results.

The book takes as its point of departure Singer and Baer’s own work on the tobacco, pharmaceutical, and asbestos industries. A common thread linking the commodities that each of the contributors examines is the combination of concealment and misleading results drawn by internal scientific research, which often obscures the risk to consumers. The editors take their argument further by suggesting that there are inherent conflicts of interest and deep contradictions in a democratic society that relies so heavily on the bottom line to function. The editors write, “The dominant class exerts control of the cognitive and intellectual life of society by structural means as opposed to coercive ones” (27). These “structural means” of control and the failure of regulatory agencies to protect consumers are reoccurring themes throughout the book.

The book contains thirteen chapters and is divided into two sections. The first section examines the types of consumer goods the average person will likely encounter in the course of a lifetime. Many of the chapters deal with toxicity and how the use of toxic chemicals in manufacturing is rationalized. In “Stealthy Killers and Governing Mentalities: Chemicals in Consumer Products,” Edward J. Woodhouse and Jeff Howard consider the underlying ideas driving the application of industrial chemicals in the manufacture and preservation of consumer goods. For instance, most people love that “new car smell” – but unfortunately the smell is a byproduct of toxic vapor dissipating into the air. The authors demonstrate how products marketed as “safe” and desirable actually compound and even create new health and safety risks for consumers.

Several of the chapters examine how industries exploit the fears of the public by making exaggerated claims, offering “solutions” to manufactured problems, and ultimately providing a false sense of security through the use of products. In “Lay Me Down To Sleep: SIDS, Suffocation, and the Selling of Risk Reduction,” Martine Hackett implicates the child product industry in contributing to “crib death” through the sale of unsafe cushions marketed as “SIDS reducing.” As Hackett shows, these products are in fact responsible for the asphyxiation of numerous infants. Hackett writes, “Consumers accept an unspoken and increasingly uneasy trust between the product manufacturers and the government that the products they are bringing into their homes are safe and that there is a larger system in place to ensure this security” (130). In “Melanoma Whitewash: Millions at Risk of Injury or Death because of Sunscreen Deceptions,” Brian McKenna details how U.S. skin-care manufacturers intentionally withhold information about the range of protection their sunscreen products actually provide in order to increase profit margins. McKenna observes this industry is continually shielded from liability by the U.S. government and various medical associations under the rationale that the benefits from what little protection these sunscreens provide outweighs the risk having an informed public potentially opting to forego sunscreen use altogether. This, however, is not a universally shared rationale. McKenna describes how the EU and Australia are currently implementing mandates to require sunscreen manufacturers to provide evidence and to substantiate marketing claims in product labeling (156). While this controversy continues elsewhere, millions of U.S. consumers remain under the impression they are proactively taking steps to prevent melanoma. Joan E. Paluzzi offers a compelling insight into the concept of a false sense of security in “Selling Sickness/Creating Demand: Direct-to-Consumer Advertising of Prescription Drugs. Paluzzi examines the implications of the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) 1997 restriction amendments allowing pharmaceutical industries to advertise prescription medications directly to consumers through media outlets. Paluzzi shows how pharmaceutical industries “manufacture” syndromes and disorders, and then offer medicine to manage the created condition. She writes, “Successful marketing of drugs to essentially healthy people requires more than choosing one brand over another, it often first requires convincing them that they may not be as healthy as they assume they are” (256). The consequence of easing these restrictions is granting the pharmaceutical industry the authority to define health for the purpose of profit. Paluzzi also points to the psychological dimension of the pharmaceutical industries influence to produce doubt in the minds of consumers about their own health. “The pharmaceutical industry claims that because medicines must be prescribed by a physician, there is an inherent safety net in the system” (265).

Singer and Baer conclude by suggesting that, despite the continued failure of regulatory agencies and the increased frequency of corporations putting consumers in hazardous situations, a mobilization effort on the part of consumers is emerging. Consumer mobilization against harmful corporate practices is becoming an effective way to leverage corporations to re-examine dangerous practices. Under the banner of critical anthropological, Singer and Baer call for more consumer advocacy and less deregulation of industry, as well as a balance between regulatory agencies and industries. They point out that some industries may have too much oversight, that is, monitored by several agencies, which obscures jurisdiction. Singer and Baer also call for an end to what they term the “revolving door syndrome,” where government regulators end up working in the very industries they once monitored. Finally, Singer and Baer call for stiffer penalties when the public is put at risk. Ultimately, the challenge that Singer and Baer make to their readers – and indeed a challenge all the authors in the volume make – is to be aware and to act.

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