Is the food industry really similar to tobacco?

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 25th March 2009

A report linking the practices of the tobacco industry of the 50s, 60s and 70s to the food industry of today has caused quite a stir.

In a review and analysis of tobacco and food industry practices, leading researchers from Yale University and the University of Michigan pinpointed similarities in strategies used across both industries.

The research, which appears in the March issue of Millbank Quarterly, claims parallels in areas such as emphasising personal responsibility, influencing government and professional organisations, paying scientists who produce favourable research, and marketing “safer” products. The authors encouraged the food industry to change both marketing and nutritional practices to avoid negative consequences to the health of consumers.

“While we recognise the inherent differences between cigarettes and food, the food industry must accept responsibility for what they are selling and how they are selling it,” said Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. “Consumers have a right to accurate information – not just spin – about the safety and nutritional value of the food they are eating.”

In 1954, the tobacco industry paid to publish the “Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers” in hundreds of newspapers, which promised a number of changes as the consumers health was paramount to the companies. “What followed were decades of deceit and actions that cost millions of lives,” the report explained, before adding that the purpose of the article was to ensure “food history will be written differently”.

“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,” the authors of the report contended. “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 American Dietetic Association, the world’s largest group of food and nutrition professionals, has dismissed the link between the two industries but believes there should be more research that is not industry-funded to avoid harming public confidence. “A sentence on the first page says it best: ‘Food is obviously different from tobacco’,” ADA’s President, Martin Yadrick, told “It would be irresponsible to say that all industry funded research is bad, however, some studies have shown that there is an influence in the results or even the publication of research when it is funded by industry. Public confidence in science could be hurt if influence issues aren’t looked at.”

The report concluded that the opportunity for the food industry was there to occupy the moral high ground. “Will the food industry adopt a playbook that promotes public health, or will its future come to rival tobacco’s past? Certainly there is an opportunity if the industry chooses to seize it-an opportunity to talk about the moral high ground and to occupy it.”

Key recommendations from the report for the food industry included: * Market the benefits of foods in accordance with their actual health profiles;
* Sell only healthful products in places associated with the well-being of children (i.e. schools, hospitals); and
* Fully and publicly disclose names and amounts of money paid to non-industry scientists who produce favorable research.

The article makes for an interesting read no matter which side of the fence you sit on. To view the full article please visit or feel free to contact us at: