JULY/AUGUST 1999 · VOLUME 20· NUMBER 7 & 8
The Business of Public Health
In 1997, the American Medical Association (AMA) cut a deal to endorse Sunbeam medical products in return for royalty payments in the millions. Following a huge public outcry, that deal was eventually rescinded and the AMA vice president who cut the deal resigned in disgrace.
Given that history, a new collaboration between the American Public Health Association (APHA) and Colgate Palmolive may raise some eyebrows.
Earlier this year, the APHA accepted a $1 million grant from Colgate Palmolive, the consumer giant that makes Colgate toothpaste, Irish Spring soap, Palmolive dishwashing soap, Speed Stick deodorant and many other household products.
According to the APHA's annual report, the money was used, in part, to launch a national public health education campaign, "Lather Up for Good Health." Under the campaign, the APHA and Colgate Palmolive distributed 100,000 "handwashing posters."
Asked what he thought Colgate Palmolive's interest was in donating $200,000 a year over five years to the APHA, Mohammed Akhter, APHA's executive director says, "We do not accept money with any strings attached. They gave us the money to do education about maternal-child health."
"So they get nothing directly," Akhter says.
"They gave us the money to do education about maternal-child health," he says. "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."
Is he concerned about undue influence of a giant private corporation over an organization designed to promote "public" health?
"Business is America," Akhter says. "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 says that he was approached recently by GlaxoWellcome. The multinational pharmaceutical giant wanted to donate $100,000 a year for two or three years.
Akhter says 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 says. "Don't come to us looking for support for this drug issue."
Akhter says 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 the public health association's 30,000 members at its annual convention.
Many members of APHA are concerned about the organization's upcoming first ever fundraising campaign to help pay for the APHA's new building and $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 says.
"But when you start talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars or millions," he says, "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 says 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.'"