Nav: Home

Jobs vs. death toll: Calculating corporate death penalties

February 19, 2019

Is there a threshold an entire industry crosses when it does more harm than good? Michigan Technological University researchers set out to examine the question with numbers.

A new paper, published in the journal Social Sciences, explores two case studies focused on industries that kill more people than they employ. The study lays out the rationale for establishing an actionable threshold and offers insights into solutions. Using case studies, it calculates the number of deaths attributed to the coal and tobacco industries and finds surprising results.

Joshua Pearce led the study and is the Richard Witte Endowed Professor of Materials Science and Engineering as well as a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Michigan Tech. He explains that he first became interested in the idea of "corporate death penalties" -- disbanding or eliminating companies following judgement by governmental justice systems -- during a study that determined the number of American lives saved from converting from coal-fired electricity to solar. Pearce wondered at what point do the number of deaths caused by an industry become too many for society to tolerate.

"The unwritten rule with industry is you get to make money if you're a benefit to society," Pearce said. He adds that most industries are primarily good. However, numerous studies have documented increasing corporate corruption and the externalized costs of environmental and health impacts that can lead to human mortality. For industries that do cause extensive harm, and perhaps warrant an industry-wide corporate death penalty, identifying that threshold requires an apolitical, clear and concise metric based on public data.

To set an ideal metric, Pearce used three assumptions: First, everyone has the right to life; second, everyone has the right to work; third, human law should give corporations the right to exist if they benefit humanity.

"If we know that life trumps employment because you have to be alive to work, then for a company or industry to exist it must employ more people than it kills in a year," Pearce said. "What this paper has done is set the minimum bar for industry existence. Surprisingly, it also showed that there are at least two industries in America right now that are killing more people annually than they employ."
  • The coal industry employs 51,795 people based on data from the United States Energy Information Administration.

  • The total number of annual US premature deaths from coal-fired, electricity-based air pollution is 52,015, using US Department of Health and Human Services data.

  • The tobacco industry employs 124,342 people based on data from the North American Industry Classification System.

  • The total number of annual US deaths from direct and second-hand smoke is 522,000 using US Department of Health and Human Services data.
Pearce says, "After running the numbers the results are shocking. Every coal mining job in the US demands literally one American life every year. For tobacco jobs it is four times worse. The study concludes both industries warrant corporate death penalties."

Yet, Pearce points out: "The vast majority of jobs and industries involve no human sacrifice."

No industry could be dissolved without consequence. However, for both coal and tobacco, Pearce's research group had previously examined solutions for shifting away from the industries. In a 2016 study published in Energy Economics, Pearce and his co-authors catalogued training required for coal workers to transition them to solar occupations.

"Electricity is an essential resource that keeps society running, however there are alternative technologies that can easily replace coal to do it -- and we'd be saving lives and money," Pearce said. "If the barrier is employing those specific coal workers, we can easily retrain them and put them to work in solar and it turns out they would even earn a little more money on average."

Likewise, in a 2018 study published in Land Use Policy, Pearce and his team showed that tobacco farmers, who make up the largest group of people employed in the industry, have economic incentive to swap a cancer-causing cash crop for more profitable solar farms.

Changing employment, therefore, is not as much of a hurdle as some might fear. While other industries may not have the same kind of transitions available, Pearce hopes that by identifying a minimum standard for corporate accountability, other industries can also be assessed.
-end-


Michigan Technological University

Related Tobacco Articles:

Helping tobacco plants save water
Eleni Stavrinidou and her research group at the Laboratory of Organic Electronics, Linköping University, have used bioelectronics to influence transpiration in a tobacco plant, without harming the plant in any way.
Small shops, heavy advertisers less likely to ID for tobacco
'Our findings suggest that certain types of stores -- tobacco shops, convenience stores and those with a lot of tobacco advertising -- are more likely to sell tobacco to a young person without checking his or her ID.'
Youth smoking and vaping: What does it mean for tobacco control
New research from PIRE/PRC features analysis of in-depth, qualitative interviews with young vapers in California between 15 and 25.
Truth telling about tobacco and nicotine
In 'Truth Telling about Tobacco and Nicotine,' PRC researchers explain that, although there is agreement among researchers about evidence that vaping can be less harmful than combustible cigarettes, the tobacco control community remains divided about how to communicate -- or even whether to communicate -- information about the relative risks of tobacco and nicotine products.
A 'joint' problem: Investigating marijuana and tobacco co-use
A survey of marijuana and tobacco co-users by Medical University of South Carolina investigators found that co-users with high degree of interrelatedness between their use of the two substances had greater tobacco dependence and smoked more cigarettes per day.
How genes affect tobacco and alcohol use
A new study gives insight into the complexity of genetic and environmental factors that compel some of us to drink and smoke more than others.
Tobacco use linked with higher use of opioids and sedatives
Tobacco is a known risk factor for the misuse of prescription opioids.
Changes in flavored tobacco product use among youth tobacco users
Self-reported use of flavored tobacco products by middle and high school students decreased from 2014 to 2016 but climbed back up in 2017 in an analysis of national survey data.
Heated tobacco product claims by tobacco industry scrutinized by UCSF researchers
Claims by the tobacco industry that heated tobacco products (HTPs) are safer than conventional cigarettes are not supported by the industry's own data and are likely to be misunderstood by consumers, according to research published in a special issue of Tobacco Control.
UNICEF 'muted' on tobacco control for children
The tobacco industry manipulated the renowned children's rights agency UNICEF for more than a dozen years, from 2003 until at least 2016, during which time UNICEF's focus on children's rights to a tobacco-free life was reduced, according to previously secret documents uncovered by UC San Francisco.
More Tobacco News and Tobacco Current Events

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2019.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Risk
Why do we revere risk-takers, even when their actions terrify us? Why are some better at taking risks than others? This hour, TED speakers explore the alluring, dangerous, and calculated sides of risk. Guests include professional rock climber Alex Honnold, economist Mariana Mazzucato, psychology researcher Kashfia Rahman, structural engineer and bridge designer Ian Firth, and risk intelligence expert Dylan Evans.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#541 Wayfinding
These days when we want to know where we are or how to get where we want to go, most of us will pull out a smart phone with a built-in GPS and map app. Some of us old timers might still use an old school paper map from time to time. But we didn't always used to lean so heavily on maps and technology, and in some remote places of the world some people still navigate and wayfind their way without the aid of these tools... and in some cases do better without them. This week, host Rachelle Saunders...
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dolly Parton's America: Neon Moss
Today on Radiolab, we're bringing you the fourth episode of Jad's special series, Dolly Parton's America. In this episode, Jad goes back up the mountain to visit Dolly's actual Tennessee mountain home, where she tells stories about her first trips out of the holler. Back on the mountaintop, standing under the rain by the Little Pigeon River, the trip triggers memories of Jad's first visit to his father's childhood home, and opens the gateway to dizzying stories of music and migration. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.