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Sunday, October 23, 2011

Childhood Under Siege

 By Joel Bakan

Published by Free Press / Simon and Schuster.

ISBN: 978-1-4391-2120-7


In Childhood Under Siege: How Big Business Targets Children, Joel Bakan reveals the astonishingly callous and widespread exploitation of children by profit-seeking corporations-and also society's shameful failure to protect them. The creator of the award-winning film and internationally best-selling book The Corporation, Bakan shows how corporations pump billions of dollars into rendering parents and governments powerless to shield children from a relentless commercial assault designed solely to exploit their unique needs and vulnerabilities.


This book by Joel Bakan, Childhood Under Siege: How Big Business Targets Children is a true eye-opener and a "must read" by everyone who is in government, business, a parent, or simply a concerned citizen. As a mother of two under fifteens (and a corporate responsibility professional, I am familiar with some of the phenomena Joel Bakan exposes, particularly with regard to marketing to children and corporate greed. But Joel Bakan goes much further than this—demonstrating how business interests place our children (and ourselves) at risk. A clear denunciation of self-regulated corporate responsibility, Children Under Siege is a wake-up call for regulators, corporations and parents and as important a motivator for action as we could require. It there is one book on your reading list, make it this one.

One theme running throughout this book is regulation and enforcement versus voluntary activities of corporations to do the right thing. Joel Bakan clearly comes down on the side of regulation (despite inadequacies of enforcement in many cases), demonstrating that "corporations, as large, powerful, and dominating institutions, deliberately programmed to exploit and neglect other in pursuit of wealth for themselves, are central players in causing environmental and social harms and fomenting injustice across the globe."

The author's indictment of the pharmaceutical industry is nothing short of frightening. Story after story of how pharma companies promote prescription of psychotropic drugs to young children, resulting in permanent behavioral and mental disorders in children are horrifying. Drug companies, according to Joel Bakan, seeing a lucrative market in child prescriptions, rush to create drugs to treat apparent child medical disorders such as ADHD, without due disclosure of their sometimes fatal side-effects, and promote these drugs aggressively to physicians, when all the while, other causes of behavioural problems in children such as dysfunctional homes, abuse, learning difficulties, poor nutrition and more may be the true non-medical causes of their symptoms and demand a treatment not dependent upon psychotropic drugs. Pharma companies hire armies of "cheer leaders" to hawk drugs to doctors, promoting drug sales at the expense of what's best for chid (and adult) patients.

A former drug rep from the Eli Lilly Company admits that he promoted an Eli Lilly drug, Zyprexa, despite the drugs causing side—effects of weight gains and diabetes and being banned from use for children. Eventually, after having boosted Zyprexa's sales to over $1.2 billion, Eli Lilly was called to account and paid a $615 million criminal fine for unlawful behaviour. The fine is a "paltry sum when compared to the company's gains from the drug". Eli Lilly is not the only drug company, however, to have engaged in similar unlawful activity – Abbott, Merck, Biovail, Cephalon, Pfizer, Bristol-Myers-Squibb, Purdue, Aventis, Serono Labs and Bayer are all listed on Joel Bakan's "rap-sheet" for having been fined hundreds of millions of dollars for deliberately misleading doctors, providing kickbacks, marketing drugs for unapproved uses and price fixing . All these fines have hardly dented big pharma's profitability but have left many people's lives destroyed, with many children among them.

But this is only scratching the surface – the manipulations and manoeuvrings of pharma companies in false marketing, use of ghost-writers to provide apparently independent endorsements of drug benefits and cleverly positioning clinical trials to deliver results which favour their drugs are all part of the behind-the-scenes machinations which are so prevalent, despite most drug companies publishing Corporate Responsibility Reports, that, Joel Bakan maintains, self-regulation is ineffective.

Similar stories can be found in Childhood Under Siege relating to the marketing industry. In fact, the book starts off with mind-shattering stories of the child-targeting video games market which "ramps up media violence, cultivates addiction, cynically exploits social network friendships, sexualizes girls and promotes hyperconsumerism." Manipulation of children's emotions and carefully crafting strategies to hook kids into the most vile media violence as well as other addictive online attractions may make big money for corporations but they also make big problems for society, by immersing kids in a world where "violence is fun, especially when it is cruel and sexualized… and that as human beings, we are naturally prone to be violent and brutal."

Another key theme running throughout the book is the issue of parental responsibility. Joel Bakan makes the case that parents should be vigilant but in most cases, they are up against a system which limits the choices they can make and the possibilities available to them to protect their children. The "social conditions" in which parents are able to choose what's best for their children severely limit real choice and freedom of action. The education system, asserts, Joel Bakan, is heavily influenced by corporate interest with reliance on standardized testing which in 2008, created a demand for 45 million test to be produced and graded each year in the No Child Left Behind program, generating $1 billion revenue for the testing industry. The growth in the EMO sector (Education Management Organizations) has led to "narrow utilitarian purpose of preparing children to be future workers" instead of providing them with a fully rounded education which encourages them to broaden their minds and realize their potential. With regulators passing education reforms, and big business interests gaining large profits, parents face an uphill struggle in going against the system.

Other issues addressed by Joel Bakan in Childhood Under Siege include the widespread cases of child labor in the U.S.A. where it is still legal for children to work at the age of 12, and the scandals around the ongoing use of BPA, promoted for years as safe by the American Chemistry Council after clear evidence to suggest its adverse health effects. These case studies are important reading and illuminate the tangled web of corporate interest and its influence on government policies and the lives of people.

For those of us who like to believe that corporations are truly committed to responsible practices and the true spirit of sustainability, Joel Bakan's book is a harsh reality check. For those of us who have suspected that corporations are less responsive to the wellbeing of humanity, the book is still a shocker. There is no sense here of sensationalist headlines, but more of a well-researched deep-dive into the negative aspects of corporate behavior that never get shared in corporate sustainability communications. Read it. Think deeply about it.

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices   Contact me via  on Twitter or via my website
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