The processed food industries now use tactics similar to those used by cigarette companies to undermine public health interventions.
“In 1954 the tobacco industry paid to publish the ‘Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers’ in hundreds of U.S. newspapers. It stated that the public’s health was the industry’s concern above all others and promised a variety of good-faith changes….The ‘Frank Statement’ was a charade, the first step in a concerted, half-century-long campaign to mislead Americans about the catastrophic effects of smoking and to avoid public policy that might damage sales.”
As a result, millions of lives were lost during decades of lies and deceptive actions. In the hope that food industry’s history will be written differently, researchers spotlighted important lessons that can be learned from the tobacco experience.
As I discuss in my video below, the “processed food industries use tactics similar to those used by tobacco companies to undermine public health interventions. They do this by distorting research findings, co-opting policy makers and health professionals, and lobbying politicians and public officials.” In his book about his fight with the tobacco industry, former FDA commissioner David Kessler recounted similar strong-arm tactics used by the meat industry to try to squash nutrition regulations.
The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision allowing corporations to spend unlimited amounts on political ads during election campaigns could make things even worse by working against candidates who support public health positions.
“Another similarity between tobacco and food companies is the introduction and heavy marketing of ‘safer’ or ‘healthier’ products. When cigarette sales dropped…[due] to health concerns, the industry introduced ‘safer’ [filtered] cigarettes that gave health-conscious smokers an alternative to quitting,” and sales shot back up. Ironically, the filters originally had asbestos in them.
Cigarette ads have proudly proclaimed that the brands they were promoting had “less nicotine, “less tar,” and even “reduced carcinogens”! And, how could anything be bad for you if it is “100% organic,” as another ad promoted?
Today, leaner pork or eggs with less cholesterol may be the food industry’s low-tar cigarettes. Indeed, food industry ads and the messages they tout can be head-scratchers. “A KFC ad campaign depicted an African American family in which the father was told by the mother that ‘KFC has 0 grams of trans fat now.’ The father, in the presence of children, shouts, ‘Yeah baby! Whoooo!!’ and then begins eating the fried chicken” by the bucketful.
A U.S. District Judge overseeing a tobacco industry case put it well: “‘All too often in the choice between the physical health of consumers and the financial well-being of business, concealment is chosen over disclosure, sales over safety, and money over morality. Who are these persons who knowingly and secretly decide to put the buying public at risk solely for the purpose of making profits, and who believe that illness and death of consumers is an apparent cost of their own prosperity?’ Above all, the experience of tobacco shows how powerful profits can be as a motivator, even at the cost of millions of lives and unspeakable suffering.”
I know some people don’t like my “political” videos and wish I’d stick to the science, but it’s impossible to understand the disconnect between the balance of evidence and dietary recommendations without understanding the impact of commercial influence.
Michael Greger, M.D.
PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations—2015:Food as Medicine: Preventing and Treating the Most Dreaded Diseases with Diet, and my latest, 2016:How Not to Die: The Role of Diet in Preventing, Arresting, and Reversing Our Top 15 Killers.