Is the Food Industry Using the Tobacco Industry Playbook?


Recently I received an article that was as disturbing as any I have read. The title is The Perils of Ignoring History: Big Tobacco Played Dirty and Millions Died. How Similar Is Big Food?  The really scary part is that the authors, Kelly Brownell and Kenneth Warner, are not two easily dismissed fringe nutritionists but rather work at a couple of places you may have heard of, Yale University and University of Michigan. The authors have studied the actions of the tobacco industry beginning in the fifties and have come away with some frightening parallels. The findings of the paper are, as I said, disturbing;

“The tobacco industry had a playbook, a script, that emphasized personal responsibility, paying scientists who delivered research that instilled doubt, criticizing the “junk” science that found harms associated with smoking, making self-regulatory pledges, lobbying with massive resources to stifle government action, introducing “safer” products, and simultaneously manipulating and denying both the addictive nature of their products and their marketing to children. The script of the food industry is both similar to and different from the tobacco industry script.

The authors concluded;

“Food is obviously different from tobacco, and the food industry differs from tobacco companies in important ways, but there also are significant similarities in the actions that these industries have taken in response to concern that their products cause harm. Because obesity is now a major global problem, the world cannot afford a repeat of the tobacco history, in which industry talks about the moral high ground but does not occupy it. “

The article is 36 pages long and appeared in the The Milbank Quarterly, Vol. 87, No. 1, 2009 (pp. 259–294). I believe it can be readily found on the internet. The next time you read a report that “a little high fructose corn syrup won’t kill you” or that “plastic water bottles are perfectly safe” think about the tobacco industry and how hard they tried to deceive the American public in the face of mounting evidence about the dangers of cigarettes.

4 Responses to “Is the Food Industry Using the Tobacco Industry Playbook?”

  1. The corporate foodies have it much easier than tobacco, IMO. Primarily this is because sound nutritional research is extremely hard to do, filled with confounders and even objective researchers who read everything get in fights over this stuff. Even when the research is sound there are issues of compliance and often overlooked hormonal effects. This was never the case with tobacco or global warming – it was always a few fringe people who had great marketing.

    A simple search of high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose, and insulin reveals astonishingly disparate results in both rat and human trials. This makes it easy for an already processed-dependent culture to justify just about anything.

  2. Elsbeth Vaino Says:

    Hey Mike, if you’re interested, there was a great movie a few years back about the antics of the big 3 lobbyists (guns, tobacco and alcohol) called “Thank you for smoking”. Not a documentary by any means, but a comedy-drama about the tobacco lobbyist’s use of the playbook. Toward the end, the self-proclaimed “Merchants of death” lobbyists welcome the fast food lobbyist to their group.

  3. Hopefully we’re at the beginning of a movement to take back not only our own health, but the health of our children as well.

    I’ll advise parents to make their own desserts or buy them from Whole Foods to insure they’re free of HFCS and trans-fats. While a completely junk food free diet would be ideal, I think minimzing the damage is priority number one.

  4. Mike,
    Scary stuff though not surprising. When you have been around for a while the greed and avarice of corp. America never surprises you anymore. Not that I want a lot of govt. regulation but to think Food Inc. has our best interests at heart is dangerously naive to say the least.
    Bruce Kelly
    PS: May have to post this on my blog as well if you don’t mind. Good stuff.

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