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Food Industry Urged To Avoid Tobacco Playbook

Ruzanna Harutyunyan's picture

Two of the nation’s top public-health specialists are issuing a call to arms in a new journal article, urging the food industry not to follow the same playbook as cigarette companies did starting in the 1950s.

The food industry of today and the tobacco industry share strategies such as tarring opponents as “fascists,” distorting science and insisting that they do not promote overuse of their products, argue 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.

“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 authors write. “The question is whether they [the food industry] will behave in honorable, health-promoting ways or will sink to the depths occupied by tobacco.”

In an interview, Brownell said the two industries are different in many ways, but share a number of strategies:

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“One is heavy-duty lobbying; two is paying scientists to produce results that favor industry positions; three is fighting to frame the issue as a matter of personal rather than corporate responsibility and the fourth is funding front groups to do their dirty work,” he said.

In their article, which appears in the March issue of The Milbank Quarterly, the co-authors make several suggestions. They say food companies should stop selling unhealthy products in schools and hospitals, end “unwarranted” blaming of people for their actions regarding obesity, stop using celebrities to promote unhealthy food and cease marketing unhealthy foods to children.

The food industry should also reformulate products with healthier ingredients, Brownell said. “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?”

Among other points, the article mentions that the American Dietetic Association has taken a stand that there are no good or bad foods, which the authors say is similar to the tobacco industry’s early position that “smoking per se was not bad, only ‘excess’ smoking.” The commentary adds that the association’s close work with the food industry is an example of the industry’s “influential positions in surprising places.”

In response, Martin Yadrick, president of the American Dietetic Association, said it is not “valid” to compare food to tobacco, since people need one and not the other.

As for the association’s ties to food makers, he said, “Health professionals of all types, especially registered dietitians, need to work with the food industry to ensure a wide variety of healthy food options are available for people. There is no one-size-fits-all definition of ‘healthy.’”