by Marion Nestle
Apr 17 2014

Is Big Food the new Tobacco?

Thanks to Maggie Hennessy at FoodNavigator-USA for her report on a meeting I wish I’d been able to attend—the Perrin Conference on “Challenges Facing the Food and Beverage Industries in Complex Consumer Litigations.”

Hennessey quotes from a speech by Steven Parrish, of the Steve Parrish Consulting Group describing parallels between tobacco and food litigation.

From the first lawsuit filed against [tobacco] industry member in 1953 to mid-1990s, the industry never lost or settled a smoking and health product liability suit. In the mid ‘90s the eggs hit the fan because the industry for all those decades had smugly thought it had a legal problem. But over time, it came to realize it had a society problem. Litigation was a symptom of the disease, not the disease itself.

…When it came time to resolve the litigation, we couldn’t just sit in a room and say, ‘how much money do you want?…A lot had nothing to do with money. It had to do with reining the industry in…We spent so much time early on talking to ourselves about greedy trial lawyers, out-of-touch regulators, media-addicted elected officials and public health people who didn’t know how to run a business. At the end of the day, it didn’t matter. We would have been much better off recognizing these people had legitimate agendas.”

… Maybe there are some parallels, but I urge people not to succumb to the temptation to say, ‘cigarettes kill you, cigarettes are addictive. But mac and cheese, coffee, and Oscar Meyers wieners don’t. That may be true, but there are still risks for the industry.

The article also quotes Michael Reese, plaintiff’s attorney for Reese Richman LLP, talking about the increasingly accusatory tone of media coverage of Big Food: 

There’s this idea, which has picked up steam in the media, that large food companies are manipulating ingredients to hook people on food. It hasn’t been manifest in litigation yet, but we’re seeing it with legislative initiatives, like Mayor Bloomberg in New York City saying sugar hooks people and causes diabetes. We’ve seen some with GMOs, though most of that legislation is about consumers’ right to know. But there’s this overarching concept that Big Food is somehow manipulating our food supply and as a result, giving us non-food.

Sounds like the message is getting across loud and clear.



  • Jennie
  • April 17, 2014
  • 10:44 am

Tobacco and food are too dissimilar to succeed with the same strategy. It was realistic to insist all tobacco products should be avoided and to legislate against smokers. People have a choice between not smoking or smoking while standing outdoors only. And of course there was second hand smoke to up the ante. With food there is no secondhand smoke and we all must eat something. Can we successfully vilify all food and all eaters. Maybe we can make everyone eat outside if they insist upon eating at all. It is so impractical I wonder why anyone would try to pattern food legislation after tobacco legislation. I certainly wonder what the agenda really is because to outlaw some food and some eaters implies there will be specially anointed experts to distinguish the “bad” foods from the “acceptable” foods. Who will be wearing the badges to get this accomplished? It just sounds too creepy somehow. Or maybe just lazy and ignorant.

  • kalihikai
  • April 17, 2014
  • 7:14 pm

There are profound similarities between how the Tobacco industry hid toxicity findings to human health and that of big aquaculture, particularly salmon and shrimp farming. As you may know, by traveling to Norway–where there are no longer any wild salmon due to pollution and disease from farmed salmon in the migratory Fjords, farmed salmon preferentially accumulate dioxin-like PCBs to such an extent that a recommended 200 gram serving exceeds the WHO’s tolerable daily intake for dioxins. Just like tobacco, salmon aquaculture across Norway, Scotland, Canada and Chile promote their product as “healthy” when it is anything but. We have known the contamination since 2004 with Dr. Hites landmark publication in the journal Science. Today, we have pediatricians, pathologists and academic diabetes researchers in Norway calling for revising the national guidelines to reduce farmed salmon consumption, especially for pregnant women and children. The similarities are clear, if you really look.

  • Paul
  • April 18, 2014
  • 3:49 am

If I smoke a cigarette right this minute, I am no more likely to die than if I drink a bucket of soda. But if I repeat these activities sufficiently frequently and over a long enough period of time, I will most certainly be harmed, and in time, killed.

To deny these realities because there are no clear differences in types of food, or to claim that we need to eat, while smoking is optional, plays directly into the hands of the spivs fighting for the status quo.

Drop the academic pretensions and start fighting the good fight, just like Prof Nestle and Mayor Bloomberg.

  • Matthew Graziose
  • April 18, 2014
  • 6:56 am

Big food has received this message and is responding with arbitration-only clauses on websites and social media, to restrict or preclude consumer’s opportunity to litigate…

Thanks, Paul, for pointing out the obvious. There are plenty of people who’ve smoked all their lives and are still alive. Many are also subscribing to unhealthful eating habits, yet they too haven’t passed. The similarity in both cases, however, is that neither is healthy or performs at his/her best. Hence, I see an obvious parallel between the modern food and old tobacco industries.

[…] Is big food the new tobacco? […]

[…] Is Big Food the new Tobacco?  […]

Jennie, you said, “People have a choice between not smoking or smoking while standing outdoors only. And of course there was second hand smoke to up the ante.”

Actually people have the choice of going into a place that allows smoking or a place that bans smoking. And if you want to bring up the “plight of the poor workers forced to work in a carcinogenic environment,” we might want to look at the fact that about 90% of workplaces now prohibit smoking while about 20% of the population smokes: if anything, the balance is *already* overdone against the smokers. (And that’s not even mentioning parallel arguments with workers being “forced” to work on outdoor patios under solar radiation {remember: sunscreen etc only provides “partial protection.”} or in restaurants that serve patrons carcinogenic and highly volatile ethyl alcohol drinks.)

And you also said, “With food there is no secondhand smoke and we all must eat something.”

Really? “no secondhand smoke” ? What would you call this stuff that’s pouring out of a local Burger King that I took a ten second video of Jennie? (See the little American flag video top center at:

The smoke pouring out of there is evidently normal for that outlet since I saw it again a few weeks later on another visit to the area. Just think of all the CHILDREN in there!

Michael J. McFadden
Author of “TobakkoNacht — The Antismoking Endgame”

  • Ann
  • April 19, 2014
  • 11:33 am

You will not “most certainly” be harmed or killed, but with regard to “a bucket of soda” & cigarettes, your risk for harm may increase.

There are clear differences in types of food, but soda has become a scapegoat and a red herring. The majority of the glucose in our diet (and it is glucose that raises blood sugar levels and it is glucose which appears to have addictive qualities) comes from starch, not sugar. USDA/DHHS guidelines–a hegemonic perspective on nutrition that Nestle helped create and has continuously upheld–still recommend 300g of sugar/starch a day, nearly 3x the RDA. Before we start creating additional government sanctions to control what people eat, perhaps we should take a closer look at the government guidance that was put in place immediately before the rapid rise in obesity rates began.

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