THE idea of a policing system on the export of dangerous products has been around for some time. An initiative to stop dumping between European countries was made in the 1970s - see below - ‘Bureau Europeén des Unions des Consommateurs’. And the International Labour Office has for some years circulated warnings on hazardous processes which may be found in factories. For the Third World consumers, however, it was atthe 1970 Congress ofthe International Organisation of Consumers’ Unions that the Jamaican delegates made public their anger at the sale of substandard and badly labelled goods from the developed countries. But the gestation time was long and it wasn’t until 1981 that Consumer Interpol was launched. This is the first early warning system for ordinary consumers in the poor world; so far there are about 52 groups in 33 countries who are actively participating in the network. Consumer Interpol also links in with other coalitions working to protect the interests of buyers in the underdeveloped world - International Babyfood Action Network (concerned with curtailing the unethical promotion of infant formula), Health Action International (an informal grapevine of 200 groups working on pharmaceutical issues) and Pesticides Action Network (a grouping of 50 to 60 organisations campaigning for safer use of pesticides).
When Consumer Interpol members learn of a suspected hazard in their country they check it out in detail and, if convinced that the product or manufacturing process is treacherous, they notify the Consumer Interpol co-ordinator in Penang, sending corroborative evidence such as labels, press clippings, laboratory reports and so on.
Once the warning is received, the coordinator goes through the evidence scrupulously to ensure there are no errors. A panel of specialists on food, drugs, pesticides and consumer law is available to refer to if necessary. If the suspicion is confirmed then the coordinator sends out Consumer Alert notices to all groups in the network. The message beamed is quite clear: ‘Watch out for this product. Here is the evidence. If you find it in your country, contact the manufacturer or distributor and the government to seek controlling action. And make sure to let the press know what’s going on.
So far Consumer Interpol has sent out about 30 Alerts. These range from warnings about chocolate bars with a risk of causing botulism to painkilling drugs with serious side-effects. In November 1982 the coordinator sent out a rather unusual Alert about clioquinol-containing drugs. The Alert was unusual because the manufacturer had already announced that it would withdraw such drugs from the market after clioquinol had been linked with the nerve disease SMON. This announcement came some 12 years after the SMON had affected thousands in Japan and elsewhere. The manufacturer, Ciba-Geigy, had in fact already quietly withdrawn the drug from sophisticated Western markets but continued to allow it to be on sale in unregulated marketplaces in areas of the Third World where diarrhoea was endemic (see New Internationalist No. 95 for the full story).
The Alert was sent out not to mark a victory but the beginning of another phase of the long drawn-out struggle. For although Ciba-Geigy admitted that the drug ‘no longer reflects new trends in modern diarrhoeal disease control’ the complete withdrawal is to be phased over three to five years. The reason given is that apparently several countries want to go on using the drug.
One of the most significant results of the SMON catastrophe is that it has drawn together many people and consumer groups who are appalled at the double standards that exist whereby companies can continue to sell products in the underdeveloped world which have been withdrawn from Western markets. One thing’s for sure: if the SMON tragedy were to occur today, the action groups on this page would not allow a delay of over 12 years between the outbreak of the drug disaster and the announcement of its withdrawal.
The UN’s December 1982 Resolution (see box) on hazardous exports adds credibility and weight to Consumer Interpol’s cause. As IOCU President, Anwar Fazal, said in summing up the aims of this watchdog network ‘We hope that Consumer Interpol and the other citizens’ networks will work to reduce if not eliminate the violence, the waste and the manipulation that charactenses so much of our society’. The next few years will be a hard struggle against companies’ bad behaviour, but at least many groups are now lining up to join that fight.
For further details please write to:
Bureau Européen de l’Environment
Bureau Européen des Unions des Consommateurs (BEUC)
Declaration of Bern
Federal Congress of Development Action Groups (BYKO)
Health Action International (HAl)
Inter-Faith Centre on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR)
International Coalition for Development Action (ICDA)
International Development Research Centre (IDRC)
Investor Responsibility Research Centre Inc. (IRRC)
Pesticides Action Network (PAN)
Public Affairs Unit
Counter Information Services
British Society for Social Responsibility in Science
Public Citizen Health Research Group
The Corporate Crime of the Century.
Hazards for Export.
Insult or Injury.
Bitter Pills - Medicines and the Third World poor.
Circle of Poison - Pesticides and People in a Hungry World.
Underhand but over-the-counter - The Global Trade in Dangerous Products.
A Growing Problem.
Pills, Pesticides and Profits - The International Trade in Toxic Substances.