A few years ago Dr Steve Phillips, the medical director for global issues at ExxonMobil, spoke at my university about their work on malaria. Vaguely I recalled some company controversies in the same regions where Exxon promotes their charitable work. So I asked the good doctor if he felt his no doubt good intentions were sometimes limited by broader corporate policy. The reply invoked the resource curse as if it was a supernatural phenomenon ! Unsatisfied, I bore into the (many see here, here, and here) articles published on Exxon’s involvement with human rights, governance, environmental challenges, and particularly their relationship with the brutal dictator of Equatorial Guinea.
What emerged led me to question whether we (the public health community) may have conflicted interests. Do we accept support generated by business practices which may harm health more than the good work enabled by that support? Deciding to write about the issue was difficult. On one hand there was little recognition of the possibility of conflicts of interest in this case which could be worthwhile to promote. On the other hand I was wading into the realm of ethics, for which I am poorly equipped, and the energy and focus may be better applied towards the smaller, more practical problems which constitute my routine work. Ultimately, I think it was just the challenge of doing something new which led to its recent publication in the Journal of Public Health Policy (unfortunately not open access). Accompanying the article is a kind commentary by the public health ethicist Sheldon Krimsky which concisely summarizes the key problem and the trade-offs inherent in addressing it.
PS pre-print version available here