Ruth Malone

Taking Responsibility

Recorded: July 16, 2012

Seeing a global epidemic of diseases caused by use of tobacco products, Professor Ruth Malone has chosen to spend her career deconstructing the public health issues associated with tobacco use. She is also an expert on the coercive techniques used in tobacco advertising.

A registered nurse and public health expert, Professor Ruth Malone is no-nonsense when it comes to tobacco. Her research focuses on tobacco industry activities aimed at undermining public health, strategic positioning and messaging, marginalized populations, and emerging developments in the social construction of tobacco use. Professor Malone is known nationally and internationally for her research on the tobacco industry’s strategic efforts to counter public health. Her work is funded by the National Cancer Institute, NIH, and by the California Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program.

Professor Malone has served as a consultant on tobacco industry activities for the U.S. Department of Justice, the Centers for Disease Control Office on Smoking and Health, and the World Health Organization (WHO) Tobacco Free Initiative. She was part of an international team that contributed to the WHO report on Tobacco Industry Interference with Tobacco Control, which was utilized for implementation efforts related to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Since 2009, she has served as editor-in-chief of the top international policy/population-focused journal in the tobacco field, Tobacco Control. In her spare time, Professor Malone is waging an impassioned campaign to preserve a rare urban wildlife corridor at Knowland Park in Oakland, CA.

Ruth Malone: One of the things that I think is most challenging and fun now about working in tobacco control is that it’s about creating new language that helps people understand that this problem has been constructed in a particular way and that it can be deconstructed. I had worked for many years in mental health and emergency departments. As you become more experienced as a clinician, you begin to realize that you are definitely working at the downstream end of things and you start to ask questions about why certain things keep showing up in the emergency room. About the time I was finishing a post doc, the trove of industry documents became available as a result of many, many state legal cases being settled. And having always been a bit of a closet historian I had, I just died and gone to heaven. They offer this incredible window into how corporate America does think about public health, about products that do harm, about how to articulate a message that people will continue to believe. On a fundamental level, corporate activity is I think the greatest threat to public health globally. The tobacco companies are particular case that some would like to say is the exception to other businesses aren’t like the tobacco business. I think you would have to say that there are very few businesses whose products kill half their users, but do other corporations engage in similar practices? We know they do. There’s quite a body of literature now showing that yes, other corporations will likewise engage in lying, in deceptive science, in public relations efforts mean to undermine public health. I think of public health really as our collective responsibility to one another for health. There should be some social contract that businesses have to not make things worse for us all as a society. We have a globalizing epidemic of tobacco disease, which is being addressed at the international level by global public health treaties. We should be having very strong civil society organizations in the same way we do in tobacco control to look at global environmental issues. Government has an obligation to protect the public from deadly products. The same thing holds for many larger environmental problems. Choices that very overrated concept in our society, choice becomes burdensome to people. At least people who are engaged in trying to make meaningful choices. You hope that government will make some of those choices for people so that it is easier for people to go about their day to day lives. I mean yes, we should all be turning off light switches. Yes, we should all recycle. But we aren’t going to get out of climate change by turning off our light switches. It’s not going to happen. So we have to figure out some larger solutions that place us in the context of our whole society and our planet as a whole.

Ruth Malone: A problem that we have in our society is that a certain kind of mentality has taken hold in terms of the way we see ourselves. I mean we see ourselves as consumers rather than citizens. I think that the search to have a meaningful life is something common to most people and so if we are not going to get it by being consumers, then we have to think how are we? How do we reinvent this role of citizen? How do we reengage people in this role of citizen? How do we give them language so that they feel they can speak as something beyond being consumers? I think that’s an important piece of what I’m trying to do with my work on tobacco is to give people new ways to talk about what this means and to change the social meaning of tobacco from being so taken from granted, so normalized. And I think in the same way, we have to change who we are as human beings in relation to the planet. We understand a little more now about that and we understand that we’re a part of everything in a way that we didn’t necessarily before. And now we understand the importance of ecosystems and habitat. And I think, you know I see public health in that same way. It’s a kind of ecosystem, it’s a kind of ecosystem and the challenge is really helping people understand that and position themselves within that ecosystem in ways that are healthy for all of us.