Food industry accused of big tobacco-style tactics

By Caroline Scott-Thomas

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Public health Health care Nutrition

The food industry is damaging public health in much the same way as the tobacco industry did in the 1950s, according to two public health experts in a new journal article, although the GMA disagrees.

The article, published in the latest issue of The Milbank Quarterly​, does acknowledge that there are some differences between the two industries, including the necessity of food to live, the addictive nature of tobacco, and the more complex nature of the food industry. But the authors, Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, and Kenneth Warner, dean of the University of Michigan School of Public Health, wrote: “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.”

Responding to the article, director of communications at the Grocery Manufacturers Association Scott Openshaw told “The comparison is absurd. The food and beverage industry is continuously working with policymakers, non-governmental organizations, parents, advertisers and other stakeholders to promote healthier lifestyle. It’s a top priority for our industry.”

Suggested industry action

The authors make some suggestions about what they think industry should be doing in the interest of public health, including taking unhealthy foods out of schools, not marketing these foods to children, and reformulating foods to contain fewer calories and higher nutrition.

Brownell said in an interview: “The question is whether you can you count on industry to do this out of goodwill, or will the market just demand these changes because people want better foods?”

The article does not refer to the efforts already made by industry in these areas, but rather to promises of self-regulated changes.

However, Openshaw said: “We have used our voice to spread the word about healthy eating and physical activity. Over the last several years, our industry has voluntarily changed its advertising and marketing practices, introduced or reformulated well over 10,000 healthier products and invested in physical activity promotion. Our efforts are having an impact and we will continue to do our part.”


Specifically, the article accuses the food industry of ‘framing’ obesity as an issue of personal responsibility, emphasizing physical activity over diet, and funding favorable scientific studies, while criticizing science that hurts industry.

The authors add that these points resonate well in the US, which values individual choice and freedom, but wrote: “They obscure the reality that some of the most significant health advances have been made by population-based public health approaches in which the overall welfare of the citizenry trumps certain individual or industry freedoms.”

Source: The Milbank Quarterly​, Vol. 87, No. 1, 2009 (pp.259-294)

“The Perils of Ignoring History: Big Tobacco Played Dirty and Millions Died. How Similar Is Big Food?”

Authors: K.D. Brownell, K.E. Warner

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