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Stanford Organics Study A “Fraud” – Linked to Cargill & Tobacco Money

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on September 13th, 2012
CorpWatch Blog
Food labeling campaign image courtesy Yes on 37

A new study, issued by scientists at the Freeman Spogli institute at Stanford university in California, that suggests that organic food has no medical or health values is deeply flawed, say outraged activists.

Media coverage of the scientific paper that was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine last week was mostly supportive, as is customary for studies from famous universities. "Organic Food 'Not Any Healthier," wrote a BBC journalist, while the New York Times published an article titled "Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce."

NGOs immediately questioned the conclusions of the study. "There was just no way that truly independent scientists with the expertise required to adequately answer such an important question would ignore the vast and growing body of scientific literature pointing to serious health risks from eating foods produced with synthetic chemicals," says Charlotte Vallaeys, food and farm policy director at the Cornucopia Institute Institute, an organic farm policy organization in Wisconsin.

"Make no mistake, the Stanford organics study is a fraud," says Mike Adams of Naturalnews.com and Anthony Gucciardi of Naturalsociety.org. "The mainstream media has fallen for an elaborate scientific hoax that sought to destroy the credibility of organic foods by claiming they are "no healthier" than conventional foods (grown with pesticides and genetically modified organisms).”

Adams and Gucciardi note that Dr. Ingram Olkin, a co-author of the organics study and a professor emeritus in statistics at Stanford, has deep financial ties to Cargill, the agribusiness multinational which sells genetically engineered foods. Olkin also accepted money from the tobacco industry’s Council for Tobacco Research, according to letters dating back to 1976.

“I learned, in visiting with Dr. Olkin, that he would like to examine the theoretical structure of the "multivariate logistic risk function." This particular statistical technique has been employed in the analysis of the Framingham study of heart disease,” wrote William W. Shinn, a lawyer with Shook Hardy & Bacon who represented the tobacco industry's Committee of Counsel at the time. “He is asking for two years of support at the rate of $6,000 per year … We believe that a modest effort now may stimulate, a broader interest in such questions especially among theoretical statisticians at Stanford and elsewhere. Dr. Gardner has reviewed and approved the proposal.”

“To say that conventional foods are safe is like saying that cigarettes are safe,” adds Adams. “Both can be propagandized with fraudulent science funded by corporate donations to universities, and we’re seeing the same scientist who helped Big Tobacco now helping Big Biotech in their attempt to defraud the public."

Stanford University has reacted to the controversy in a defensive manner: “This paper was published in a reputable, peer-reviewed journal, and the researchers received no funding for the study from any outside company. We stand by the work and the study authors,” the university is quoted as saying in the Los Angeles Times. “Stanford Center for Health Policy (where the study was conducted) has never received research money from Cargill.”

One of the reasons that the Stanford study has become a lightning rod is a ballot initiative that California voters will be asked to vote on in November. Proposition 37 will require labeling on raw or processed food “if the food is made from plants or animals with genetic material changed in specified ways” and also “prohibit labeling or advertising such food as ‘natural.’”

See “The Devil is in the Details” for a good technical review of the Stanford study, authored by Dr Charles Benbrook, former executive director of the subcommittee of the House Committee on Agriculture in the U.S. Congress, that explains the scientific errors.

Indian Supreme Court to Hear Novartis “Patents Versus Patients” Case

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on August 21st, 2012
CorpWatch Blog
Poster designed for Oxfam by net_efekt. Used under Creative Commons license.

Novartis, the Swiss pharmaceutical company, will appear before the Indian Supreme Court Wednesday to appeal against a patent rejection for a popular cancer drug. A decision in favor of the company could have a devastating impact on cheap supplies of many kinds of generic drugs for poor patients.

Cancer Patients Aid Association (CPAA) – an Indian non profit that has treated 300,000 patients since 1969 – is a key plaintiff in the case against Novartis. "(Their) aggressive patent policy makes Novartis responsible for the misery of thousands of cancer patients in India today and if not restrained will have similar effect at the global level," says Y.K. Sapru, the CEO of CPAA.

"It would quite simply be a death sentence for us," Vikas Ahuja, president of the Delhi Network of Positive People, told the Guardian. Ahuja was diagnosed with HIV almost 20 years ago. "I am quite sure that if Novartis wins, other multinationals will follow suit and other drugs will become prohibitively expensive."

The patent that the judges will examine is for imatinib mesylate, which is used to treat various forms of cancer. Developed by Nicholas Lydon in the 1990s, imatinib mesylate is now marketed under the brand name Gleevec by Novartis.

In the U.S. companies are issued 20 year patents, after which the drug becomes available for anyone to make. Novartis filed for a patent on imatinib mesylate in India in 1997 but Indian regulators ignored the application. At the time India refused to recognize international patents on essential drugs in order to keep prices affordable.

In 2005, India changed its laws to accept patents, as part of an agreement to join the World Trade Organization. At the time Gleevec was being sold by Novartis at prices of $32,000 per patient per year while Indian companies were selling the same drug for roughly $2,100 per patient per year. (Gleevec now retails for almost $70,000 a year)

In January 2006 the Patent Controller in Chennai ruled that Gleevec was not novel under section 3(d) of the patents law which explicitly requires that patents should only be granted on medicines that are truly new and innovative.

Novartis –said the court – was attempting to prolong an expired patent through an industry practice called “evergreening” – a tactic by pharmaceutical companies change the composition of the medicine or the way that it is delivered in order to claim a new innovation.

“Novartis argued that increased bioavailability of the salt form of imatinib meant increased efficacy, entitling it to a patent on imatinib mesylate,” a fact sheet from Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) explains. “But at the time, Madras High Court clarified efficacy to mean ‘therapeutic effect in healing a disease.’The rejection of Novartis’s patent application was therefore confirmed.”

Novartis appealed the Indian decision in June 2006 and was rejected. The case has now wound its way to the Supreme Court where industry observers say a decision (which may not come down till November after several weeks of hearings) will have a dramatic impact of the future of foreign drug sales in the country.

For example, Leena Menghaney of Doctors Without Borders says that Indian generic drug manufacturers have been able to cut drug bills for HIV patients from $10,000 a year to just $150.

"If we lose, we don't know if we can continue sustaining a large number of patients in developing countries," Menghaney told the Wall Street Journal. "You could have existing drugs [in India] being patented and newer drugs about to go off patent being extended. It could be a big problem for us in the coming decade."

Pharmaceutical companies see the matter differently. If Novartis wins, the believe that India’s $11 billion drug market could be worth $74 billion by 2020.

Meanwhile Indian regulators are looking at setting price caps on as many as 348 drugs, up from 74 today, in order to protect poor patients.

In recent months Indian regulators have come down on the side of patients. In March, PH Kurian, the controller general of patents, designs and trademarks in India, allowed a local company to manufacture and sell a generic version of Sorafenib, a drug used to treat advanced kidney cancer and liver cancer.

Bayer, a German multinational, had been selling Sorafenib, under the brand name of Nexavar, for $5,600 a month. (The average per capita income in India is a little under $100 ie two percent of the price of the drug) Kurian allowed Natco Pharma, an Indian company, permission to sell the drug at $176 a month.

India is not the first country to act on this matter. Between November 2006 and January 2007, Thailand issued compulsory licenses for two AIDS drugs (efavirnz and the combination of lopinavir+ritonavir) and one antihypertension drug (clopidegrel). Several other countries - Ethiopia, the Congo, Tanzania and Uganda – are also considering similar action.

Hospital Corporation of America Allegedly Profited From Questionable Cardiac Procedures

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on August 7th, 2012
CorpWatch Blog
Richard Bracken, HCA CEO, speaking at Tulane university. Photo: Tulane publications. Used under Creative Commons license.

Hospital Corporation of America (HCA) – the world’s largest operator of private clinics and hospitals – has come under the spotlight for performing unnecessary cardiac procedures, notably in Florida.

Based in Nashville, Tennessee, the company has 163 hospitals and 110 surgery centers, and an annual revenue of $ $29.682 billion in 2011 with profits of $2.465 billion. About a fifth of its income comes from Florida, which has a large retiree population.

HCA previously paid out $1.7 billion in fines and repayments to settle charges of defrauding the government in 2000. One of the key agreements was “to resolve lawsuits alleging that HCA hospitals and home health agencies unlawfully billed Medicare, Medicaid and TRICARE for claims generated by the payment of kickbacks and other illegal remuneration to physicians in exchange for referral of patients.” (Medicaid, Medicare and TRICARE are U.S. government healthcare plans for poor people, elderly people and military personnel and their dependents respectively)

The company also signed a special eight year agreement from 2000 to 2008 with the U.S. Department of Justice that required them to promptly report fraud or face harsher penalties that other companies because of the previous fraud claims.

The new charges suggest “that a defendant, already caught once defrauding the government, has apparently not changed its corporate culture,” Michael Hirst, a former assistant United States attorney in California, told the New York Times.

The procedures that are being questioned today are diagnostic catheterization (insertion of a tube into the heart) and cardiac stents (a tube inserted into cardiac arteries). Medicare normally pays the hospitals about $3,000 and $10,000 for each procedure respectively.

The newspaper revealed that internal investigations at HCA showed that between 2002 and 2010, company doctors were “unable to justify many of the procedures they were performing,” write Reed Abelson and Julie Creswell. “Questions about the necessity of medical procedures — especially in the realm of cardiology — are not uncommon. But the documents suggest that the problems at HCA went beyond a rogue doctor or two.”

A catheterization laboratory at the Lawnwood Regional Medical Center in Fort Pierce, Florida, accounted for 35 percent of the hospital’s net profits. There Dr. Abdul Shadani and Dr. Prasad Chalasani at Lawnwood are named by the New York Times as being quick to perform catherizations. Some 1,200 procedures were found to be unnecessary in a 2010 review.

Also singled out was Dr. Sudhir Agarwal who practiced at the Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point in the town of Hudson, also in Florida. An internal review found that his “style of clinical practice leads to unnecessary procedures and unnecessary complications.”

Dr. Agarwal and the other eight doctors have sued HCA for defamation in county court. Anthony Leon, a lawyer for the nine doctors, issued a statement that said: “There is absolutely no merit to any allegation that any of these doctors were performing unnecessary procedures or performing procedures that led to unnecessary complications as a style or pattern of practice.”

HCA is hardly alone in being accused of defrauding the government. A quick scan of the official press release index of the Department of Justice suggests that it is a rare week when the authorities fail to catch someone who has milked the taxpayer for $10 million or more.

For example, in December 2010 three companies – Abbott Laboratories, B Braun Medical, and Roxane Laboratories – agreed to pay $421 million to settle allegations of overcharging. (The companies were billing the government up to 20 times more than the actual consumer costs for products like intravenous drugs and solutions.)

In 2009, Pfizer paid out $2.3 billion to settle allegations of criminal and civil liability arising from the illegal promotion of Bextra, an anti-inflammatory drug. And less than a month ago, GlaxoSmithKline to pay $3 billion in a civil and criminal settlement to settle allegations of illegal marketing of Paxil and Wellbutrin which was prescribed to treat depression as well as failure to report safety data for Avandia, a diabetes drug.

One of the problems in the U.S. is the staggering sums involved: the government is expected to spend a trillion dollars, or seven percent of GDP, on Medicare and Medicaid, which, in turn, have become a gold mine for the private companies that provide the care. (An interesting statistical note: the UK National Healthcare Services which covers all citizens costs roughly five percent of national income)

“If you are a hospital that wants to boost its bottom line though, performing more surgeries — even those that aren’t necessary — is pretty much the way to go,” writes Sarah Kliff at the Washington Post blog. “Right now, doctors get paid for each service they provide. The cardiologist that inserts more stents and performs more surgeries tends to net a higher salary.”

Fighting Malaria: Big Pharma or Better Aid Coordination?

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on May 2nd, 2012
CorpWatch Blog
The Fever Book, Sonia Shah (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010)

Why don’t drug companies invest enough money in treating malaria and tuberculosis? A recent study published in the Lancet magazine estimates that 1,238,000 people died from malaria in 2010. A similar number are believed to die from tuberculosis, together accounting for between one in ten and one in twenty disease related deaths around the world. Surely a wonder drug that stops these diseases would be wildly profitable?

The first problem is that most of the victims are poor people in the Third World but there is another major issue that puts off Big Pharma. “Because (malaria and tuberculosis) drugs are expensive to develop, and yet, the more people buy them, the faster the drug becomes obsolete and un-sellable,” writes Sonia Shah, author of “The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years”  “As a result, very few drug companies spend much time or money developing anti-microbial drugs anymore. It’s bad for business.”

For decades chloroquine has been the drug of choice to treat malaria, a disease carried by the female anopheles mosquito. When chloroquine-resistant malaria was discovered, artemisinin was chosen to take its place, promoted by international donors and the World Health Organization (WHO). This is a drug that was developed from the sweet wormwood plant by Chinese military scientists in the 1970s after a long and painstaking screening process of thousands of traditional medicines.

Now Novartis, a Swiss company, sells 100 million packets of Coartem, a version of the original Chinese drug, one of the most successful drugs in history. The company does so under a unique partnership with the World Health Organization (WHO) to distribute Coartem for pennies a dose to the poorest people in the world.

Unfortunately, recent reports now suggest that malaria parasites in western Cambodia have also become resistant to artemisinin. “Call it the revenge of the microbes. The more poison we throw at them, the faster they learn to circumvent our chemicals,” writes Shah.

So Novartis as well as other companies like GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, Ranbaxy, Sanofi and Shin Poong are putting some money into developing new drugs. Last week Ranbaxy, based in Gurgaon, India, announced a new drug: Synriam, on the occasion of the World Malaria Day.

While it is true that Big Pharma has played a role in some of the drug development (Novartis invented a child friendly version of artemisinin, for example, as well as done most of the manufacturing) mere capitalism and profit from the sale of “wonder drugs” would never have advanced the cause of global health.

Most of the progress made in fighting the disease is really as a result of government research and donors that have increased aid efforts from $200 million to $1.6 billion a year, over the course of the last decade, to help pay for access to basic drugs and improve methods of prevention.

“The single biggest challenge is financial rather than biological,” Rob Newman, head of the malaria programme at the World Health Organisation (WHO) told Andrew Jack of the Financial Times. “The thing we most need is to make sure the money keeps coming.”

There are also many important tasks other than sales of Coartem to continue to fight malaria: tests to track resistance as soon as it appears and more targeted use of drugs to make sure that they are not used too heavily. Another way to prevent malaria is to provide and make sure that families use mosquito nets and environmental management of standing bodies of waters where they breed as well as improving hospital hygiene.

China and Cuba are providing money for such projects but the West is wary of their traditional enemies. Writing in the Financial Times, Jack summarizes the worries and fears of Big Pharma and Western aid donors: “China’s malaria health centres in Africa have lacked sufficient technical support and training, while Cuba’s promotion of killing off mosquito larvae is viewed as a diversion from more effective measures.”

Shah agrees with the WHO. “Slowing the spread of drug-resistant malaria will take time and resources,” she writes. “But it’s better than the alternative: the loss of yet another wonder drug and a new era of unstoppable infections.” And the Financial Times concludes: “In an age of austerity, co-operation and co-ordination will be more important than ever.”

Amen to that.

Chevron Gets Fixed

Posted by Antonia Juhasz on November 4th, 2009
Huffington Post

Originally published on 3 November 2009.

On Sunday, Chevron became the first oil company to come under a Yes Men Audience Attack.

(See Video, Photos, and Yes Man Andy Bichlbaum's Blog of event)

Chevron was chosen because Chevron is different from other oil companies.

It is bigger than all but three (only ExxonMobil, BP and Shell are larger). It is facing the largest potential corporate liability in history ($27 billion) for causing the world's largest oil spill in the Ecuadorian rainforest. It is the only major U.S. Corporation still operating in Burma and, with its partner Total Oil Corp., is the single largest financial contributor to the Burmese government. It is the dominant private oil producer in both Angola and Kazakhstan, with operations in both countries mired in human rights and environmental abuses. It is the only major oil company to be tried in a U.S. court on charges of mass human rights abuse, including summary execution and torture (for its operations in Nigeria).

It is the only oil company to hire one of the Bush Administration's "torture memo" lawyers (William J. Haynes). It is the largest and most powerful corporation in California, where it is currently being sued for conspiring to fix gasoline prices. It has led the fight to keep California as the only major oil producing state that does not tax oil when it is pumped from the ground, thereby denying the state an extra $1.5 billion annually. It is the largest industrial polluter in the Bay Area and is among the largest single corporate contributors to climate change on the planet.

Chevron is also the focus of one of the world's most unique and well-organized corporate resistance campaigns.

That campaign got a jolt of energy when Yes Man Andy Bichlbaum came to San Francisco on Halloween weekend for a special screening of The Yes Men Fix the World.

Global Exchange and I teamed up with Andy (the movie's co-writer, director, and producer) and a host of the Bay Areas most creative activists, to lead an entire movie audience out of the theater, into the streets, and in protest of Chevron.

We spread the word early, far, and wide: The Yes Men are coming! The Yes Men are coming! They will not only fix the world, they will fix Chevron too!

Larry Bogad, a Yes Man co-hort and professor of Guerilla Theater, helped concoct a masterful street theater scenario. A crack team of protest and street theater organizers was compiled, including David Solnit of the Mobilization for Climate Justice and Rae Abileah of Code Pink. Rock The Bike signed on and the word kept spreading.

On Sunday, the Roxie Theater in San Francisco's Mission District was filled beyond capacity with an audience that came ready to protest. They laughed, clapped, booed, and cheered along with the film. When the movie ended, Andy answered questions, I talked about Chevron, and Larry laid out the protest scenario.

Three Chevron executives, protected from the early ravages of climate change in SurvivaBalls, were dragged up the street by dozens of Chevron minions with nothing but haz-mat suits to protect them. Those unable to afford any protection (i.e. The Dead) followed close behind. Next came resistance: the Chevron street sweepers, actively cleaning up Chevron's messes who were followed by the protesters, ready to change the story.

We didn't have a permit, but we took a lane of traffic on 16th street anyway. The police first tried to intervene, then they "joined in," blocking traffic on our way to Market and Castro.

As we marched and the music blared, people literally came out of their houses and off of the streets to join in. Passersby eagerly took postcards detailing Chevron's corporate crimes.

Once we arrived at the gas station, I welcomed everyone and explained that we were at an independent Chevron (as opposed to corporate) station, whose owner (whom I'd been speaking with regularly) had his own list of grievances with his corporate boss. The particular station was not our target of protest, but rather, the Chevron Corporation itself.

Larry and Andy than led the entire crowd in a series of Tableaux Morts. The Chevron executives in their SurvivaBalls drained the lifeblood from the masses. The people began to rebel, forcing the SurvivaBalls into the "turtle" position to fend off the attacks. Ultimately, the separate groups saw their common purpose in resisting Chevron's abuses. The dead rose, the Chevron minions rebelled, and the sweepers and protesters joined together. They all chased the Chevron executives off into the distance, and then danced in the streets, rejoicing in their shared victory!

The Chevron Program I direct at Global Exchange seeks to unite Chevron affected communities across the United States and around the world. By uniting these communities, we build strength from each other, and become a movement. By expanding, strengthening, and highlighting this movement, we bring in more allies and create a powerful advocacy base for real policy change. Those changes will reign in Chevron, and by extension, the entire oil industry. And, by raising the voices of those hardest hit by the true cost of oil and exposing how we all ultimately pay the price, we help move the world more rapidly away from oil as an energy resource altogether.




Berkeley, Oakland urge oil money transparency

Posted by Josh Richman on October 20th, 2009

Originally posted, October 14, 2009 on http://www.ibabuzz.com/politics/2009/10/14/berkeley-oakland-urge-oil-money-transparency/

Berkeley City Council last night approved a resolution urging the U.S. Senate to approve S.1700, the “Energy Security Through Transparency Act” by U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., which would urge the Obama Administration to require that companies disclose payments to foreign governments for oil, gas and mineral rights. Oakland City Council passed a similar resolution last week.

“Good governance in extractive industries contribute to a better domestic investment climate for U.S. businesses, increase the reliability of commodity supplies, promote greater U.S. energy security and thereby strengthen our national security,” says the summary on Lugar’s Web site.

San Francisco-based Justice in Nigeria Now hails the cities’ actions as a moral victory.

“I was tortured and imprisoned by the Nigerian military for my peaceful protests against Shell Oil’s destruction of our land,” Suanu Kingston Bere, a Nigerian activist who spoke at the Berkeley City Council meeting, said in JINN’s news release. “I believe the City’s support sends a strong message that communities in the U.S are concerned about the human rights abuses and environmental damage associated with oil extraction. I do not want to see my people continue to go through what I went through.”

Berkeley’s resolution also calls on the State Department to support third-party peace talks in the Delta to address environmental destruction and lack of investment in the oil producing region. The resolution was co-sponsored by Councilmembers Jesse Arreguin, Darryl Moore and Max Anderson and was introduced to the council through the Berkeley Peace and Justice Commission, which worked with JINN to draft it.

JINN says 50 years of oil exploitation in the Niger Delta has produced over $700 billion in oil revenues shared between the Nigerian government and oil giants like San Ramon-based Chevron as well as Exxon Mobil and Shell. More than 40 percent of Nigeria’s oil is exported to the U.S. Yet despite the corporate oil wealth, local residents’ quality of life has deteriorated – their drinking polluted, their food fisheries poisoned, their access to education, health care and even electricity limited.

“Oil companies in Nigeria have had long a relationship with the notoriously corrupt and historically brutal Nigerian government where rampant corruption, fraudulent elections and violent suppression of peaceful protests are the norm in the Delta,” Nigerian writer and activist Omoyele Sowore said in JINN’s news release. “The proposed ESTT Act in the Senate is an important step toward holding oil companies accountable for their collusion with the Nigerian government, which protects their profits while killing and injuring innocent local people and destroying the Delta’s fragile environment.”

What's not in Chevron's annual report

Posted by Cameron Scott on May 26th, 2009

Originally posted at http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/green/detail?entry_id=40674

When people with strong ideological perspectives are often outraged by media coverage of their pet issues. When both sides are mad, you know you're doing something right. But how often do you hear corporations furious about they way they are covered in the business section? The section seems to lend itself to favor-currying and soft-shoeing.

In the lead-up to Chevron's annual shareholders meeting tomorrow in San Ramon, the company landed a puff piece on KGO focusing on its efforts to decrease its water usage. No mention of the Amazon controversy, and no mention of outside pressure on Chevron, EBMUD's largest water user.

I'm disappointed to say that a Chronicle interview with the company's top lawyer also softballs the issues, while giving Chevron the opportunity to present its side of the story with no opportunity for response from the company's many critics. [Update: Chron editors tell me there will be more coverage of Chevron later in the week.]

Well, Chevron's opponents, including San Francisco's Amazon Watch, have taken matters into their own hands, releasing an alternate annual report that presents the externalities not listed in the company's balance sheet, which shows a record profit of $24 billion, making the company the second most profitable in the United States.

Did you know that Chevron's Richmond refinery was built in 1902 and emitted 100,000 pounds of toxic waste in 2007, consisting of no less than 38 toxic substances? The EPA ranks it as one of the worst refineries in the nation. With 17,000 people living within 3 miles from the plant, you'd think the San Ramon-based company would take local heat from more than just a couple dozen activists.

Chevron has sought to brand itself an "energy" company, one eagerly pursuing alternatives to petroleum. Its aggressive "Will You Join Us?" ad campaign asked regular folks to reduce their energy consumption, suggesting that Chevron was doing the same. In actuality, the company spent less than 3 percent of its whopping capital and exploratory expenditures on alternative energy. And it has refused to offer better reporting on its greenhouse gas emissions, despite strong shareholder support for it. (The aggressive, and misleading, ad campaign seems to have ired the report's researchers as well: The report is decorated by numerous parodies, and some have been wheat-pasted around town.)

It's a very well researched report, written by the scholar Antonia Juhasz, clearly divided into regional issues, and it's a much needed counterbalance to the friendly coverage Chevron is otherwise getting. (Juhasz was interviewed on Democracy Now this morning.)

For information on protesting the shareholder meeting early tomorrow morning, click here.

Not Quite Beyond Petroleum

Posted by Philip Mattera on February 20th, 2009

For the past eight years, the oil giant formerly known as British Petroleum has tried to convince the world that its initials stand for “Beyond Petroleum.” An announcement just issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency may suggest that the real meaning of BP is Brazen Polluter.

The EPA revealed that BP Products North America will pay nearly $180 million to settle charges that it has failed to comply with a 2001 consent decree under which it was supposed to implement strict controls on benzene and benzene-tainted waste generated by the company’s vast oil refining complex in Texas City, Texas, located south of Houston.  Since the 1920s, benzene has been known to cause cancer.

Among BP’s self-proclaimed corporate values is to be “environmentally responsible with the aspiration of ‘no damage to the environment’” and to ensure that “no one is subject to unnecessary risk while working for the group.” Somehow, that message did not seem to make its way to BP’s operation in Texas City, which has a dismal performance record.

The benzene problem in Texas City was supposed to be addressed as part of the $650 million agreement BP reached in January 2001 with the EPA and the Justice Department covering eight refineries around the country. Yet environmental officials in Texas later found that benzene emissions at the plant remained high. BP refused to accept that finding and tried to stonewall the state, which later imposed a fine of $225,000.

In March 2005 a huge explosion (photo) at the refinery killed 15 workers and injured more than 170. The blast blew a hole in a benzene storage tank, contaminating the air so seriously that safety investigators could not enter the site for a week after the incident.

BP was later cited for egregious safety violations and paid a record fine of $21.4 million. Subsequently, a blue-ribbon panel chaired by former secretary of state James Baker III found that BP had failed to spend enough money on safety and failed to take other steps that could have prevented the disaster in Texas City. Still later, the company paid a $50 million fine as part of a plea agreement on related criminal charges.

In an apparent effort to repair its image, BP has tried to associate itself with positive environmental initiatives. The company was, for instance, one of the primary sponsors of the big Good Jobs/Green Jobs conference held in Washington earlier this month. Yet as long as BP operates dirty facilities such as the Texas City refinery, the company’s sunburst logo, its purported earth-friendly values and its claim of going beyond petroleum will be nothing more than blatant greenwashing.

Originally posted at:

http://dirtdiggersdigest.org/archives/327

Dirt Diggers Digest is written by Philip Mattera, director of the Corporate Research Project, an affiliate of Good Jobs First.

Norway finds Canada's largest publicly-traded company, Barrick Gold, unethical

Posted by Sakura Saunders on February 2nd, 2009
protestbarrick.net

Norway's Ministry of Finance announced Friday that it would exclude mining giant Barrick Gold and U.S. weapons producer Textron Inc from the country's pension fund for ethical reasons.  This is an especially significant judgment for Canada, as Barrick Gold is currently Canada's largest publicly traded company.

While the Norwegian Council of Ethics full recommendation mentions conflicts involving Barrick in Chile, Tanzania, and the Philippines, the panel acknowledged that, "due to limited resources," it restricted its investigation of Barrick to the Porgera mine in Papua New Guinea.  The Porgera mine has been a prime target for criticism for its use of riverine tailings disposal, a practice banned in almost every country in the world.

"It's unbelievably embarrassing," admitted Green Party deputy leader Adriane Carr. "It's got to be bad news for Canada when a foreign government says it's going to sell its shares in a Canadian company they figure is unethical."

This isn't the first time that Norway's Fund has divested from a gold mining company. In fact, looking at a list, the fund – with the notable exception of Walmart – divests exclusively from mining (primarily gold mining) corporations and corporations that produce nuclear weapons or cluster munitions... an interesting juxtaposition highlighting the comparable nature of mining to the production of weapons of mass destruction, especially in terms of long-term environmental consequences.

Compare that to Canada's treatment of gold mining companies. Just this last December, Peter Munk, the chairman and founder of Barrick Gold, received the Order of Canada, Canada's highest civilian honor. Additionally, within Toronto he is honored as a philanthropist, with the Peter Munk Cardiac Center and the Munk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto both adorning his name. Similarly, Ian Telfer, the chairman of Goldcorp, the world's second largest gold miner behind Barrick, has the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa bearing his name.

These symbolic gestures, along with the fact that several Canadian Pension funds and even Vancouver-based "Ethical Funds" are still heavily invested in Barrick Gold, show that Canada has a long way to go in demanding that its companies honor human rights and halt its colonial-style, exploitative economic regime. In fact, by its own admittance, Canada's Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade stated that "Canada does not yet have laws to ensure that the activities of Canadian mining companies in developing countries conform to human rights standards, including the rights of workers and of indigenous peoples." Since the date of that landmark confession, Canada has yet to adopt any intervening structures (like an ombudsperson) or develop any mandatory regulations for Canadian companies operating abroad.

Gold mining produces an average of 79 tons of waste for every ounce of gold extracted, 50 percent of it is carried out on native lands, and about 80 percent of it is used for jewelry, according to the "No Dirty Gold" campaign, a project of Oxfam and Earthworks. It is no wonder that in a portfolio with plenty of human rights abuses, the Norwegian Pension Fund decided to concentrate on gold miners, cluster munition manufacturers and nuclear weapon producers first. It is time that the rest of the world catch up.

James Bond Takes on the Corporate Water Privateers

Posted by Jeff Conant on December 10th, 2008

Spoiler Alert!

Back in the good old days of the Cold War, everybody’s favorite secret agent, James Bond, fought villains like Dr. No, an evil scientist out to sabotage U.S. missile tests, and Mr. Big, a Soviet agent using pirate treasure to finance espionage in America. But as Bond’s friend Mathis tells him in Quantum of Solace, released this month, “When one is young, it’s easy to tell the difference between right and wrong. As one gets older, the villains and heroes get all mixed up.”

The reference is to a shady new Bond villain, agent of the Quantum organization – one Dominic Greene. In public, Greene is a leading environmentalist whose organization, Greene Planet, buys up large tracts of land for ecological preserves. But behind the scenes, Greene has another agenda. As he says to his co-conspirators, “This is the most valuable resource in the world and we need to control as much of it as we can.”

The film makes a number of plays on the assumption that the resource in question is oil – but oil is so…twentieth century.

By the time Bond has pursued Greene from Italy to Haiti, from Haiti to Austria, and crash-landed his plane in a sinkhole in the high, barren desert of Bolivia, we make the discovery that this vital resource is – surprise! – water.

Colluding with Greene is a cast of evil characters taken straight from the history books. We have General Medrano, the ex-dictator of Bolivia, to whom Greene says, “You want your country back? My organization can give it to you.” We have the U.S. Ambassador, myopically sticking to the familiar program: “Okay, we do nothing to stop a coup, and you give us a lease to any oil you find.” And we have the British foreign office, continually wrangling with M15, Bond’s spy agency. When Bond’s boss, M, tells him that Greene is not an environmentalist but a villain, the Foreign Minister says, “If we refused to do business with villains, we’d have almost no one to trade with.”  Ain’t it the truth.

The fact that Quantum of Solace makes water the villain’s object of greed, replacing oil, gold, diamonds, and mutually assured destruction, is telling of the point we’ve reached. More telling still is the fact that our villain’s cover has him acting as an environmentalist, the ultimate corporate greenwasher. The fact that the action winds up in Bolivia – the country where, in real life, both Bechtel and Suez have tried and failed to take control of community water resources during and shortly after the reign of former-dictator-turned-neoliberal President Hugo Banzer – brings the plot frighteningly close to reality. The privatization of water in Bolivia back in 2000, and the massive popular response that turned out rural water stewards and urban ratepayers to riot for months until the multinational transgressor was ousted, was the spark that set social movements worldwide on red alert. Since then, numerous private water companies have been refused contracts on the grounds that popular movements, and, increasingly, governments, recognize the need to treat water as a human right and a public good – not a commodity.

If only the water movement had a few organizers with the physique, the gadgets, and the, er, style of Bond.

While we have many great documentaries telling the story of the global water wars, including this year’s Flow and Blue Gold, one is forced to wonder if 007 does a greater service to the water movement than even our most highly talented documentarians. After all, who better than Hollywood to characterize the greenwashing corporate water profiteers as straight up evil, sans the need to justify the hyperbole?

Matieu Amalric, the actor who played Dominic Greene, wanted to wear make-up for the role, but director Marc Forster “wanted Greene not to look grotesque, but to symbolize the hidden evils in society.” Similarly, the original screenplay had Greene having some “hidden power.” But in the final cut, the director seems to have decided that corporate power was power enough.

One wonders if Dominic Greene – had he not died drinking motor oil to quench his thirst in the Bolivian desert – might give the keynote speech at the upcoming World Water Forum in Istanbul (WWF). After all, the World Water Council (WWC) that puts on the forum is presided over by Loïc Fauchon, a former executive at one of the French subsidiaries of Suez, the world’s largest private water corporation.

As we learn from the WWF website, “One of the benefits of joining the WWC is the Council's ability to influence decisions related to world water management that affect organizations, business, and communities.” Perhaps their secret meetings will also be attended by executives of the Worldwide Fund for Nature, whose recent partnership with Coca-Cola aims to help the global soft-drink giant become “the most efficient company in the world in terms of water use,” with “every drop of water it uses…returned to the earth or compensated for through conservation and recycling programs.” And, with this blending of fact and fiction, it would hardly be surprising to find Greene’s signature on the CEO Water Mandate, which has companies with such devastating environmental track records as Dow Chemical, Shell Oil, Unilever, and Nestlé pledging to “help address the water challenge faced by the world today.”

When M, Bond’s overweening boss at M15, finds out about Quantum, she demands, “What the hell is this organization, Bond? How can they be everywhere and we know nothing about them?”

Well, my darling M, the answer is simple: like transnational corporations, and like the large NGO’s that work with the private sector to reform its practices and green its reputation, and like the International Finance Institutions whose interests are increasingly endangering the United Nations’ mandate to defend and protect human rights, they can be everywhere because their particular form of villainy works best when hidden in plain sight.

Thankfully, the world’s water is safe, because, behind the scenes, secret agent 007 is on the job.

Well, not true. But countless people and organizations worldwide, from the Red Vida to the African Water Network, from the People’s Health Movement to the Reclaiming Public Water Network, are vigilant in the defense of the human right to water. With the recent placement of water warrior Father Miguel D’Escoto, a Nicaraguan liberation theologian, in the presidential seat at the UN General Assembly, and his selection of Maude Barlow as a senior advisor on water, we are witnessing a tidal change in the highest levels of international cooperation.

They may not have the brutal take-no-prisoners attitude or the classy cocktail swagger of Mister Bond, but they represent a lot of people, and they’re on the right side.

So, corporate evil-doers, and your greenwashing NGO henchmen, beware. The forces of good are on the loose.

Originally posted at Food & Water Watch:

http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/blog/archive/2008/11/20/james-bond-takes-on-the-corporate-water-privateers/view

Giant Mining Firm’s Social Responsibility Claims: Rhetoric or Reality?

Posted by Philip Mattera on August 1st, 2008

The recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to slash the damage award in the Exxon Valdez oil spill case and the indictment of Sen. Ted Stevens on corruption charges are not the only controversies roiling Alaska these days. The Last Frontier is also witnessing a dispute over a proposal to open a giant copper and gold mine by Bristol Bay, the headwaters of the world’s largest wild sockeye salmon fishery. Given the popularity of salmon among the health-conscious, even non-Alaskans may want to pay attention to the issue.

The Pebble mine project has been developed by Vancouver-based Northern Dynasty Ltd., but the real work would be carried out by its joint venture partner Anglo American PLC, one of the world’s largest mining companies. Concerned about the project and unfamiliar with Anglo American, two Alaska organizations—the Renewable Resources Coalition and Nunamta Aulukestai (Caretakers of the Land)—commissioned a background report on the company, which has just been released and is available for download on a website called Eye on Pebble Mine (or at this direct PDF link). I wrote the report as a freelance project.

Anglo American—which is best known as the company that long dominated gold mining in apartheid South Africa as well as diamond mining/marketing through its affiliate DeBeers—has assured Alaskans it will take care to protect the environment and otherwise act responsibly in the course of constructing and operating the Pebble mine. The purpose of the report is to put that promise in the context of the company’s track record in mining operations elsewhere in the world.

The report concludes that Alaskans have reason to be concerned about Anglo American. Reviewing the company’s own worldwide operations and those of its spinoff AngloGold in the sectors most relevant to the Pebble project—gold, base metals and platinum—the report finds a troubling series of problems in three areas: adverse environmental impacts, allegations of human rights abuses and a high level of workplace accidents and fatalities.

The environmental problems include numerous spills and accidental discharges at Anglo American’s platinum operations in South Africa and AngloGold’s mines in Ghana. Waterway degradation occurred at Anglo American’s Lisheen lead and zinc mine in Ireland, while children living near the company’s Black Mountain zinc/lead/copper mine in South Africa were found to be struggling in school because of elevated levels of lead in their blood.

The main human rights controversies have taken place in Ghana, where subsistence farmers have been displaced by AngloGold’s operations and have not been given new land, and in the Limpopo area of South Africa, where villagers were similarly displaced by Anglo American’s platinum operations.

High levels of fatalities in the mines of Anglo American and AngloGold—more than 200 in the last five years—have become a major scandal in South Africa, where miners staged a national strike over the issue late last year.

Overall, the report finds that Anglo American’s claims of social responsibility appear to be more rhetoric than reality.  Salmon eaters beware. 

http://dirtdiggersdigest.org/archives/148

Dirt Diggers Digest is written by Philip Mattera, director of the Corporate Research Project, an affiliate of Good Jobs First.

Paulson Blueprint Promotes Insurance Industry Shell Game

Posted by Philip Mattera on April 5th, 2008


There’s something peculiar in the report on financial market regulation issued March 31 by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. The plan, touted by some as a bold expansion of federal control over capital markets and dismissed by others as a mere rearranging of the deck chairs on the financial Titanic, includes an incongruous section on the insurance industry.

While insurance is a financial service, it hasn’t been at the center of the implosion of the housing market or (aside from the bond insurance crisis) linked to the instability on Wall Street. The Paulson plan, nonetheless, provides a resounding endorsement of a “reform” that key players in the insurance industry have been seeking for at least 15 years—allowing large national carriers to do an end run around the current state-based insurance regulatory system. Such carriers would be permitted to adopt an “optional federal charter” and thereby put themselves under the supervision of a federal regulatory agency that does not yet exist.

Big Insurance has not sought federal oversight because it wants more regulation. After all, this is the industry that pioneered offshoring when some carriers moved their official headquarters to tax havens such as Bermuda. While it is true that many state regulators have been toothless watchdogs, other states have been aggressive in protecting the interests of policy holders and the public.

In fact, the Paulson proposal comes just a couple of weeks after insurers were celebrating the downfall of New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer in a prostitution scandal. During his time as New York’s attorney general, Spitzer pursued major insurance companies such as Marsh & McLennan and American International Group for offenses such as bid rigging. Marsh ended up settling for $850 million in 2005, and AIG paid a whopping $1.6 billion the following year. While it is true that Spitzer went after the industry as a prosecutor rather than a regulator, he did so in the overall context of state oversight.

The insurance industry swears that it supports the optional federal charter in the name of modernization (as does the Paulson report), but it is significant that the reform has been supported by groups such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the American Enterprise Institute that are no friends of regulation (some Democrats in Congress are also in favor). When word of Paulson’s insurance proposal leaked out over the weekend, the American Insurance Association rushed out a press release hailing it, saying that the optional federal charter “will be more efficient, effective and rational given the ‘increasing tension’ a state-based regulatory system creates.”

Throughout its history, the insurance industry has avoided “tension” by trying to minimize government interference in its affairs. In 1945 the industry supported the McCarran-Ferguson Act, which responded to a Supreme Court ruling by affirming the regulatory role of the states. In recent times, the industry has wanted the option of federal oversight on the assumption that it would be less onerous. I’ll let the legal scholars decide whether state or federal regulation is inherently more appropriate. The issue is whether an industry not known for generous treatment of its customers (think of Katrina victims denied coverage) is going to be subjected to some strict oversight somewhere.

http://dirtdiggersdigest.org/archives/23

Dirt Diggers Digest is written by Philip Mattera, director of the Corporate Research Project, an affiliate of Good Jobs First.

McDonald's gets F grade in Florida

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on January 18th, 2008

Fast food giant McDonald's was just forced to withdraw a controversial program to sponsor report cards in Seminole County, central Florida, in exchange for a Happy Meal coupon on the cover that features an image of Ronald McDonald. (Children with A and B grades, with two or fewer absences or who exhibit good behavior were entitled to pick up a free Happy Meal at their local McDonald's, as long as they presented their report cards. The company paid the $1,600 cost of printing the report cards.)

The promotional campaign by the Illinois-based company was defeated by a small, but feisty, activist coalition named the Campaign For A Commercial-Free Childhood, which is based out of the Judge Baker Children's Center in Boston.

In early December last year, CCFC launched a campaign against McDonald's when outraged parents contacted them. "My daughter worked so hard to get good grades this term and now she believes she is entitled to a prize from McDonald's," Susan Pagan, an Orlando parent, told CCFC. "And now I'm the "bad guy" because I had to explain that our family does not eat at fast food chains. I'm outraged that McDonald's is trying to exploit my daughter's achievement -- and that the Seminole County School Board would help facilitate this exploitation."

It's not the first time that McDonald's has tried to directly influence the eating habits of young children (nor, probably the last, unfortunately). Three years ago the company dropped a national campaign in the UK of providing educational material and teaching assistants to primary schools after a public backlash against the program by groups like McLibel.

And in the 1990s there was a hue and cry by groups like UNPLUG! of Oakland, California, after McDonald's and other companies provided "sponsored educational materials" on subjects like nutrition to teachers to supplement or take the place of approved curriculum in the U.S. The company was also protested for sponsoring McTeacher's Night in southern California, which involved teachers working at local McDonald's restaurants to raise funds for schools by selling burgers to their own students!

Yet perhaps the most devastating blow to McDonald's advertising to school-children was done by documentarian Morgan Spurlock with his film: SuperSize Me (the entire film can be watched for free online at http://freedocumentaries.org/film.php?id=98 ). In the film, Spurlock documents the impact of dining exclusively on McDonald's products for a 30-day time period. The film also explores the fast food industry's corporate influence, including how it encourages poor nutrition for its own profit. (An edited DVD version of the film designed to be integrated into a high school health curriculum is available from Arts Allliance America.)

NB: Full disclosure: This writer is a former fast food food industry employee with almost two years experience working fulltime in the business including stints at Burger King, McDonald's and Pizza Hut which allowed him to finance a diploma course in journalism school.

The Curse of Gold

Posted by Sakura Saunders on February 28th, 2007


This week's CorpWatch feature
highlights the plight of indigenous people in Papua New Guinea, where landowners feel that they are cheated out of their resources, livelihoods, and just compensation by the world's largest gold producer, Barrick Gold.

Papua New Guinea represents a case study in how resource extraction just might be the worst possible way to develop a country, especially where 85 percent of the population depends on the environment for their subsistence livelihood. Here, the pollution caused by open-pit mining and cyanide leaching creates an especially vulnerable situation for the indigenous people. In our recent feature, we attached testimonies from the landowners, mine workers, women, and human right activists who are affected by the mine. A principal landowner, Nelson Akiko, describes his disillusionment with the mine:

We depend on our land. You depend on money. Money is not need, it is only a want, but it is need in western society. I live on land, which is my stomach. I grow food from this land and then I survive. But now, where can I get food?

Also, the fact that mineral deposits, including oil, copper, and gold, account for two-thirds of PNG's export earnings leaves them susceptible to the Dutch Disease, or the phenomenon wherein resource exports raise the exchange rate for a country's currency, thereby making their labor less desirable. While this only accounts for a tiny part of the negative consequences of mining, it does illustrate that even within an economic paradigm, mining carries negative consequences for 'development', especially open pit mines because they require less human labor. Large mineral exports also make countries more susceptible to corruption because of the negotiating power held with government gatekeepers.

This is similar to Mali, where gold makes up 65 percent of its exports, dwarfing its former economic bedrock cotton. Some 64 mining companies have active mining and exploration projects in this landlocked African country, but despite a surge in gold prices, Mali's development indicators have stagnated. A recent Oxfam report 'Hidden treasure: in search of Mali's gold mining revenues', concluded that:

"There is not sufficient disclosure in an understandable form for citizens or civic groups to determine whether they are indeed benefiting as they should according to current law in Mali."


The fact that gold is a largely useless metal (that is already hoarded and unused in large quantities) makes the destruction caused by it's extraction all the more tragic. According the No Dirty Gold Campaign, 80% of the gold is used by the jewelry industry. On average, the production of one gold wedding ring produces 20 tons of waste.

Unfortunately, Papua New Guinea is not an isolated example of how gold mines can destroy communities. Mining Watch Canada summed their view of the mining industry in Canada, where 60% of the world's mining companies reside:

Metal prices are booming, and Canadian mining companies are taking advantage of the same prejudicial conditions to expand into all corners of the globe, manipulating, slandering, abusing, and even killing those who dare to oppose them, displacing Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities alike, supporting repressive governments and taking advantage of weak ones, and contaminating and destroying sensitive ecosystems. 
CorpWatch has been tracking Barrick elsewhere in the world, most recently at its Pascua Lama project in Argentina.
Barrick's plans to "relocate" three glaciers - 816,000 cubic meters of ice - by means of bulldozers and controlled blasting, is seen by mine-opponents as symbolic of the company's utter insensitivity to the environment. As headwaters for a water basin in an arid region receiving very little rainfall, many opponents are gravely concerned for the ice. They say the mechanical action involved in moving the glaciers will irreversibly melt much of it, jeopardizing a delicate ecological balance further downstream.

While Barrick originally planned to "relocate" three glaciers to another area, since being denied their original plan, the project now aims to build an open-pit mine next to the glaciers. However, most alarmingly, since construction has started on the mine, the glaciers have been depleted an estimated 50-70 percent, according to Chilean General Office of Waters (DGA). Barrick attempted to blame global warming for the melting, but those claims have been disproven.


Mining in the U.S.

In the U.S., Western Shoshone lands now account for the majority of gold produced within the United States and almost 10 percent of world production. The scale of development is unprecedented and will leave a legacy of environmental impacts for centuries into the future.

An excellent article on the boom in gold mining from the Las Vegas Mercury News explains the predicament that Shoshone face. 

Remembering Oil Spills, Old and New

Posted by Sakura Saunders on February 13th, 2007

The week opened with the start of a four month trial against France's oil giant, Total, by groups like Friends of the Earth France.

The Paris tribunal will examine the 1999 Erika tanker disaster that poured 20,000 tonnes of oil into the sea, polluted 250 miles of coastline and caused $1.3 billion in damage. At least 150,000 seabirds were found dead on the coast and up to 10 times as many were probably lost in the oil-blackened seas. Observers say this may also turn into a trial of the "globalized" international shipping system as the Erika was crewed by Indians, sailing under a Maltese flag, chartered by a shipping company registered in the Bahamas for a French oil company.

Meanwhile, a lawsuit between the state of New York against Exxon and four other companies has recently been announced. This suit addresses an oil spill from the 1950's that was several times the size of the Exxon Valdez oil leak in Alaska, but lay undiscovered until 1978. According to New York state attorney Andrew Cuomo, Exxon has been slow to clean up, with an estimated eight million gallons of oil and petroleum byproducts still underground and toxic vapors from the ground threatening neighborhood health.

A Bloomberg article quotes local residents:

"There are people who live above this that still don't know about it,'' said Basil Seggos, chief investigator for Riverkeeper, an environmental group that sued in 2004 to try to force Exxon Mobil to clean up the creek. Others in Greenpoint have become spill experts, according to Seggos, and they say the fumes that rise from basements and sewers are especially bad when the barometer drops before a storm. "The locals tell you they know when it's going to rain because they can smell the oil.''


In other oil spill news, Lagos' Vanguard newspaper reported today that ten Ijaw communities had been displaced and 500 made homeless by a Chevron Nigeria oil spill.

The report quotes Gbabor Okrika, the councilor representing the affected communities:

"Chevron is not bothered about the health of the people they are only concerned about their operations and they have now started a process that can only divide the people and create further division among them."

Also, last month's massive leak in the Chad Cameroon Pipeline caused a storm of criticism regarding the environmental safety of this project. This Exxon-managed pipeline extends from landlocked Chad through Cameroon and extends 11 kilometers off the coast into the Atlantic. This project, which is overseen by the World Bank, has already received much criticism due to money from this project fueling conflict in Chad.

IRIN News quoted Kribi Mayor Gregoire Mba Mba:

"Our town lives on fishing and tourism. If more incidents like this or worse occur it is the economic future of the town that is threatened."

Environmental groups are warning that a similar spill could happen in the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline operated by BP that transports crude 1750 kilometers from the Caspian to the Mediterranean Sea. On Monday, a coalition of Azeri, British and US watchdog groups leaked a report from the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation, which says that cracks and leakages in the coating of the pipeline will need to be monitored closely.

Seducing Kids with Smokes, Gambling, and Booze

Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on June 11th, 2006

Back in the day, tobacco companies used quaint tactics to hook kids on their deadly wares: cartoon character spokescamels and candy-flavored tobacco. The former, being rather blatant, was outlawed - the latter is still considered a stealthy way to capture a youth market, especially in the developing world.

R.J. Reynolds, of spokescamel fame, has come up with a new way to tap into kids' yearning to seem grown up: booze-flavored cigarettes with a gambling theme. Part of its new line of "Exotic Blends" are flavors such as "Screwdriver Slots," "Blackjack Gin," and "SnakeEyes Scotch." A trifecta of dangerous legal addictions.

Of course, Reynolds claims it is only aiming for the "young adult" demographic, but I can smell the cigarette smoke and mirrors as well as the next guy. This Italian blog has a great graph that shows that children aged 17 (who are not allowed to buy cigarettes legally in all 50 of the United States) like flavored cigarettes almost as much as young adults 18-20 years old. After 20, the taste for novelty smokes appears to wear off as the addiction sets in.

The malignant shamelessness on display here is nothing new. Let us not forget the days when cigarette companies actually talked up the health benefits of their products. Some things never change, they just put on new thin veils.

When Death Really Pays

Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on May 2nd, 2006

You have to marvel at how news coverage of business so skews one's view of the world. It seems to strip writers of all human perspective. For example, this headline from the Cincinnatti Business Courier today:

"Mild flu season boded ill for Alderwoods' 1Q profits"

Alderwoods is one of the nation's largest funeral home chains. The view from the bottom line is quite upside-down: Not enough people died, dammit!

Saving Money by Dumping Kids!

Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on April 18th, 2006

Accenture, that former consulting arm of the scandal-plagued Arthur Andersen, won a contract last year to operate a call center in Texas to direct children and families to publicly available social services.

Today's story in the Houston Chronicle says "lawmakers once were told the project would save the state $646 million over five years." I guess they should have asked how before privatizing this aspect of their public services.

Turns out accenture is saving the state money by rejecting claims from families attempting to access the state's Children's Health Insurance Progam. The number of kids covered has plunged from 500,000 to 300,000.

I don't think Jonathan swift himself could come up with a more fail-safe modest proposal for saving money.

The Vicious Tobacco Cycle

Posted by CorpWatch on January 3rd, 2006

Oklahoma has a problem. Too many people are quitting smoking. It's cutting into the state's budget.

Tobacco tax revenues are up, but not as high as expected, and that means that health programs funded by tobacco revenue are gasping for air. This illustrates an interesting conundrum: how can state governments effectively fight tobacco use when they have arranged to be so dependent on the tax revenue smokers provide? Sin taxes like those levied on tobacco are supposed to dissuade people from using the product - but if too many are scared off, budget line items go up in a puff of smoke.

George Will recently made this same observation (although he demonizes state governments for their 1998 deal with the tobacco companies to seize proceeds from a legal and federally subsidized commodity), but with a decidedly different conclusion. He says the Master Settlement Agreement should be scrapped. But consider: if fewer people smoke, fewer people get sick, meaning fewer costs associated with both healthcare and lost productivity. In the long run, if the theory holds, income may dwindle at roughly the same pace that outlay does.

Quitting smoking takes time, patience and determination. Apparently, so does quitting tobacco taxes.