Last week I went to Richmond to do three presentations about my books. I was hosted by my cousin Louis Adams, who attended the first presentation.
Driving in, I passed the corporate headquarters of Altria, renamed from Philip Morris a dozen years ago. They make cigarettes, cigars and other tobacco products, things that frequently prematurely kill their own customers.
I said something to that effect in my presentation, wondering aloud about working for a company like that. Louis told me later that a man near him grumbled that he’d worked there for 35 years and wasn’t happy with my quip. Hey, it is what it is.
Tobacco’s cultivation and use have been major contributors to Virginia’s economy almost since white people arrived. It didn’t take long for its addictive properties to assert themselves, as 17th Century physicians, unhesitatingly willing to do autopsies, found black, oleaginous goo coating the lung cavities of deceased smokers. And yet for another couple of centuries, the tobacco industry continued to downplay the risks. Only when public interest changed in the 1960s did legislatures insist on sweeping changes, including the ubiquitous warning labels on cigarette packs and removal of advertising from television and other media.
Nevertheless, Altria continues to be one of the country’s most active financiers of political lobbying, spending millions each year to affect public policy. Altria funds The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, which lobbied against the scientific consensus on climate change. Altria, it seems, is deeply involved in the denial of science.
Speaking of climate change, Altria is not the only corporation that doesn’t want the public to know or understand the risks. Energy giant Exxon Mobil has been studying this for decades. Recently released documents show that it has long deliberately misled the public about the state of climate science and its implications.
Evidence shows a systematic, measurable discrepancy between what Exxon Mobil’s scientists and executives discussed in internal communications and what it presented to the public. Presumably Exxon reasoned if we knew the truth it would damage their business.
Blatant disregard for the health and safety of the public and even their own customers is not merely the realm of these two corporations. Chemical giant Monsanto has developed and or produced a laundry list of harmful products, including now banned PCBs, dioxin, and DDT, as well as questionable products like bovine growth hormone, Aspartame and Saccharin.
Perhaps worst of all, Monsanto has been able to fully dominate and control our seeds and food supply by developing and marketing GMO crops, which have been linked to obesity, infertility, autism and even cancer.
To be fair, my guess is that many of the people inventing these harmful products were unaware of the risks, at least at the beginning, and were just working to make their employers more successful. Consider the case of one Thomas Midgley Jr. (1889-1944), often credited with inventing more destructive and ultimately banned products than anyone who has ever lived.
Midgley’s first blockbuster was tetraethyl-lead, an additive to gasoline that made engines run smoother, released in 1921. Due to its irrefutably pernicious effects, the EPA finally banned lead in gasoline 20 years ago, but the legacy is so pervasive that we still buy “unleaded” gas. Next, genius Midgley invented the chlorofluorocarbon “Freon,” the refrigerant that coursed through air conditioners, freezers, and refrigerators for decades until it was banned for damaging the earth’s protective ozone layer.
Ultimately Midgley contracted polio and strangled to death, entangled by the ropes of a device he’d invented to help others lift him from his bed. Some things you can’t make up.
It’s sad but undeniable that many corporations place their profits over the well being of humanity. Here’s the one that is particularly depressing to me.
Pharmaceutical companies, ostensibly in the business of alleviating human pain and suffering, are now killing massive numbers of our neighbors throughout Appalachia.
Opioid drugs, extensively and deceptively marketed by the drug industry, kill 90 people every day. Manufacturers and distributors have aggressively worked to convince doctors to overprescribe prescription medications that turn users into zombified addicts.
Opioids are a drug class of painkillers based on opium. Heroin, introduced in 1898, was rigidly controlled and prescribed under only the direst circumstances. Nowadays, synthetic painkillers like fentanyl and oxycodone (brand name: Oxycontin) have flooded the market.
These painkillers are among the most addictive substances known. Oxycontin is so addictive it can create physical dependency in weeks, leaving users miserable if they can’t get their fix.
OxyContin’s maker Purdue, in 2007, pleaded guilty in federal court here in Virginia to misleading doctors and patients about its risks. The $600 million fine was substantial, but a drop in the bucket compared with the $35 billion it made from Oxycontin sales between 1995 and 2015.
You’d think it would be a questionable business strategy for a corporation to kill its own customers.
Clearly, many don’t care. Beware!
Michael Abraham is a businessman and author. He was raised in Christiansburg and lives in Blacksburg.