by Marion Nestle

Search results: tobacco

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.


Jul 28 2010

Obesity vs. Tobacco: a zero-sum game?

Anti-tobacco advocates have been worried for years that concerns about obesity would draw funding away from anti-smoking initiatives (see previous posts).  Their fears are justified, as described in today’s New York Times and in a recent editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Years of experience have taught anti-smoking advocates that countering the marketing efforts of cigarette companies required constant vigilance.  It also taught them that cigarette companies take immediate advantage of any weakening of resistance to their efforts.

Cigarettes remain the leading cause of preventable deaths among Americans.  Cigarette marketing aimed at children remains a national—and international—public health scandal.

Health should not be a zero-sum game.  Anti-obesity advocates have much to learn from anti-smoking advocates.  How about joining forces to improve the health of Americans?

Jul 1 2010

Food is not tobacco, but some analogies are worth attention

I’ve just read an enlightening paper in the July issue of the American Journal of Public Health (see Note below) about the tobacco industry’s role in and funding of “We Card,” a program ostensibly aimed at discouraging smoking among young people by encouraging retail cigarette sellers to “card” underage buyers.

The paper is an analysis of internal food company discussions about this program in cigarette company documents released as part of the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement.  These documents are now publicly available on the University of  California San Francisco (UCSF) website.

This analysis demonstrates that the actual purpose of tobacco industry support for the program was to make the industry look good (public relations) and to convince legislators and health officials that regulation would be unnecessary.

The industry effectively recruited astonishing numbers of private business, retail, and trade groups (expected) and state health, legal, and police agencies (which should have known better) as partners in this program.  The paper lists these groups in tables that take up nearly five pages.

As the paper explains:

Economic theory predicts that industry self-regulation will achieve social benefits far smaller than those gained from government regulation, although governments increasingly view self-regulation as a means to achieve public goals without public spending. However, industries and governments may have competing agendas, suggesting that public health advocates should be wary of self-regulation strategies…. This program’s success in reaching tobacco retailers and attracting independent allies has made We Card one of the tobacco industry’s major public relations achievements. However, despite industry claims that the program is effective, internal industry evidence suggests that We Card has not reduced tobacco sales to minors and that it was not designed to do so. Instead, We Card was explicitly structured to improve the industry’s public image and to thwart regulation and law enforcement activity.

The authors’ conclusion: “Policymakers should be cautious about accepting industry self-regulation at face value, both because it redounds to the industry’s benefit and because it is ineffective.”

Proponents of food industry self-regulation and of partnerships and alliances with food companies should read this study carefully.

Note: Only the Abstract is available to non-subscribers.  The reference is Apollonio DE, Malone RE, The “We Card” Program: Tobacco Industry “Youth Smoking Prevention” as Industry Self Preservation.. Am J Public Health 2010;100:1188-1201.

Mar 21 2009

Is food the new tobacco?

The Rudd Center at Yale is devoted to establishing a firm research basis for obesity interventions.  Its latest contribution is a paper in the Milbank Quarterly from its director, Kelly Brownell, and co-author Kenneth Warner, an equally distinguished anti-smoking researcher from the University of Michigan.  Its provocative title: The perils of ignoring history: Big Tobacco played dirty and millions died.  How similar is Big Food?

The paper is getting much attention.  A spokesman for the American Dietetic Association, a group well known for its close ties to food companies, emphasizes that food is not tobacco.  Of course it’s not.  But food companies often behave like tobacco companies, and not always in the public interest.  The Milbank paper provides plenty of documentation to back up the similarity.  Worth a look, no?

April 3 update: Evidently, thinks so.  It is asking readers to file 100 word comments on issues raised by the paper by April 8.   And here are the comments.

Oct 12 2016

WHO takes action against sugary drinks, urges taxes

The World Health Organization took two actions yesterday to encourage people to cut down on consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages.

It issued a report urging national governments to consider taxes: “Taxes on sugary drinks: Why do it?  

Governments can take a number of actions to improve availability and access to healthy foods and have a positive influence on the food people choose to consume. A major action for comprehensive programmes aimed at reducing consumption of sugars is taxation of sugary drinks. Just as taxing tobacco helps to reduce tobacco use, taxing sugary drinks can help reduce consumption of sugars.

It defines sugar drinks as products that contain added sugar, corn or fruit-juice concentrates and include carbonates, fruit drinks, sports drinks, energy and vitamin water drinks, sweetened iced tea, and lemonade.

It also took immediate action to remove sugary drinks from its Geneva headquarters

The agency explained this action:

The move signifies how seriously WHO is taking its leadership role in implementing policies to improve public health…By implementing this policy WHO is setting a positive example for Member States, other organizations and visitors…WHO vending machines, restaurants and coffee shops will continue to sell water, fizzy water, and unflavoured milks with different fat contents, teas and coffees, and beverages with non-sugar sweeteners (such as diet and zero calorie drinks). Sugar packets for use with tea and coffee will continue to be served.

These actions are getting plenty of attention.

The Guardian pointed out that:

Battle lines are being drawn in Colombia, where a consumer movement is pressing the case for a sugary drinks tax and the industry is fighting back…Last month, the Asociación Educar Consumidores – the consumer organisation which, like its Mexican equivalent, has backing from Bloomberg Philanthropies in the US – produced an educational video to be broadcast on television, warning that drinking too many sugary drinks can lead to diabetes and other diseases.

But after a complaint from Postobón, the Colombian beverage giant, the government’s regulatory agency charged with consumer protection banned any showing of the video on TV, saying it was inaccurate and could confuse the public.

Michael Bloomberg, now a global ambassador for WHO issued a statement.

A growing number of cities and countries – including Mexico – are showing that taxes on sugary drinks are effective at driving down consumption. The World Health Organization report released today can help these effective policies spread to more places around the world, and that will help save many lives.

The International Council of Beverages Associations (ICBA) issued a statement:

ICBA is disappointed that this technical committee’s report advocates the discriminatory taxation solely of certain beverages as a ‘solution’ to the very real and complex challenge of obesity. We strongly disagree with the committee’s recommendation to tax beverages, as it is an unproven idea that has not been shown to improve public health based on global experiences to date.

Healthy Food America says the soda industry has spent $30 million to fight soda taxes, just this year.

WHO has just given its blessing to soda taxes.  Will countries respond?  How much more is the soda industry willing to spend to stop taxes?

Stay tuned.

Other accounts:

Oct 5 2016

Some thoughts about SNAP: declining enrollments and legal issues

Let’s start with the USDA’s latest figures on SNAP participation.  Enrollment is down by a couple of million which could be good news (people have jobs that pay enough to make them ineligible) or bad news (elibility runs out).

The USDA issued a report in 2001 explaining the reasons.


As the report explains:

The large decrease in the number of food stamp participants is due to both a decrease in the number eligible for food stamps and a decrease in the rate at which eligible persons participate. The decrease in the participation rate played a slightly more important role, explaining 56 percent of the fall in the number of participants. The decrease in the number of eligible persons explains 44 percent of the fall in the number of participants.

Next, let’s look at the article in the New York Times on attempts to improve the quality of foods that can be purchased with SNAP benefits.

There have been manymanymany calls for the food stamp program to promote more healthful diets. Many states have requested waivers allowing for restrictions on what benefits can buy (some items, like alcohol, tobacco and household supplies, are already prohibited). Further restrictions have been rejected by the Department of Agriculture, which administers this welfare program.

The article is based on a study trying incentives for buying fruits and vegetables, restrictions on junk foods, and a combination of both.   The study concluded:

A food benefit program that pairs incentives for purchasing more fruits and vegetables with restrictions on the purchase of less nutritious foods may reduce energy intake and improve the nutritional quality of the diet of participants compared with a program that does not include incentives or restrictions.

the study was accompanied by an editorial calling for a trial of mixed incentives and restrictions.

But, as Daniel Bowman Simon tells me, the law only allows the USDA to do incentives.  By law, it cannot do additional exclusions.  This is because Congress says what retailers can and cannot sell to SNAP recipients:

As written in 7 U.S. Code § 2012, section (k)

“Food” means (1) any food or food product for home consumption except alcoholic beverages, tobacco, hot foods or hot food products ready for immediate consumption….

It looks to me as though excluding soft drinks, for example, would require Congress—not the USDA—to change this definition or let states do so.

Daniel wonders why USDA doesn’t make this clear.  Me too.

I’m told that three states have requested waivers and that the USDA is considering them.  How?  I don’t know, but stay tuned.

NOTE:  Several readers filed corrections on this post and I thank them.  I have revised it accordingly.

Aug 22 2016

Catching up on soda politics

My book, Soda Politics, came out not quite a year ago but so much has happened since then that it’s been hard to keep up with everything that’s happening in campaigns to discourage consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages.

Fortunately, Healthy Food America’s Casey Hinds puts out a daily roundup of sugar and soda news (you can sign up for it and HFA’s other materials here).

A few recent items of particular interest:

USA Today’s editorial, “soda taxes fall flat

More effective ways already are being used to change people’s diets. The best use of government authority is to empower people with the information they need to make healthier choices.

The editorial comes with a poll, still up.  You can vote on it here.  At this moment only 183 votes have come in, 51% strongly in favor of the editorial opinion.

Jim Krieger of Healthy Food America did a counterpoint

The time has come to tax sugary drinks like we tax tobacco. The analogy is powerful: As with tobacco, rock-solid evidence shows habitual use harms health. Sugary drinks are a prime culprit in rampant health problems — diabetes, obesity, and heart, dental and liver disease – that cut lives short and drive up health care costs.  Tobacco taxes have reduced smoking, while raising money to make lives better. Taxing sugary drinks would do the same

This too has a poll on which you can still vote.  Only 92 votes have come in, and only 38% strongly agree.

Americans don’t like taxes.  Even so, either this issue doesn’t generate much interest or it’s just August and too hot to think about such things.


The beverage industry spent $10.6 million to oppose Philadelphia’s soda tax initiative

The soft drink industry does not like taxes and seems willing to put fortunes into opposing them.

The Philadelphia City Council passed the tax anyway.  I keep thinking of all the good things nearly $11 million could do for public health.

Melbourne’s The Alfred Hospital reduces sugary drink consumption

The hospital did an experiment to see if they could shift the mix of drinks purchased from sugary to less sugary.  They did this by increasing the price of sugary drinks and hiding them under counters.  Sales of sugar-sweetened beverages sales fell by 36,500 drinks in a year.

I don’t get it.  Why not just stop selling them altogether?

That’s it for this August Monday.  Stay cool.  More to come.

Addition, August 23

A reader from New Zealand writes to say that “all of its hospitals no longer sell sugary sodas and some are also beginning to remove juice and artificially sweetened beverages due to their acidic nature and detrimental impact on oral health.”

May 5 2016

More on corporate funding of nutrition research: exchange of letters

In January this year, JAMA Internal Medicine published my Viewpoint on corporate funding of nutrition research: science or marketing.

Richard Kahn, former chief scientist and medical officer of the American Diabetes Association, wrote a letter in reply (see below for more about him**).  The journal published his letter, along with my response, in its current issue.  Here’s what I said.

In Reply Dr Kahn requests evidence that nutrition research funded by food companies is of lesser quality than studies funded by independent agencies or performed by investigators with nonfinancial conflicts of interest. Concerns about such issues are relatively recent; few published studies address them directly. Instead, concerns about industry sponsorship of nutrition research derive from comparisons with the results of studies of funding by tobacco, chemical, drug, or medical device companies. This research typically finds industry-sponsored studies to report results more favorable to the products of the sponsor than studies not funded by industry. It identifies subtle rather than substantive differences in the quality of this research; industry-funded studies are more likely to underreport unfavorable results and interpret neutral results more positively.1 When results are negative, they are less likely to be published.2

Between March 2015 and March 2016, I identified 166 industry-funded nutrition research studies and posted and discussed them on my blog.3 Of these, 154 reported results favorable to the interest of the sponsor; only 12 reported contrary results. The few studies systematically examining the influence of industry funding on nutrition research tend to confirm results obtained from other industries. For example, a systematic review comparing industry-funded and nonindustry-funded trials of probiotics in infant formula reported no association of funding source with research quality. Industry-funded studies, however, seemed more likely to report favorable conclusions unsupported by the data.4

Dr Kahn states that sponsored studies often specify that the funder had no role in the study. Only recently have some journals required such statements, and I am unaware of research on the extent of this practice or authors’ adherence to it. Among the 166 industry-funded studies that I reviewed, few disclosed involvement of a sponsor.

Dr Kahn asks whether industry funding is any more biasing than career self-interest or intellectual passion. Unlike industry funding, self-interest and passions are intrinsic to every scientist who conducts research, are a matter of public record, cannot be eliminated, and have not been shown to consistently bias research results in the same ways as industry funding.5 Fortunately, nutrition societies and research institutions are developing policies to manage financial relationships with industry.6 Such policies hold promise for preventing financial conflicts of research in nutrition research.

1. Lundh  A, Sismondo  S, Lexchin  J, Busuioc  OA, Bero  L.  Industry sponsorship and research outcome. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012;12:MR000033. PubMed

2. Rising  K, Bacchetti  P, Bero  L.  Reporting bias in drug trials submitted to the Food and Drug Administration: review of publication and presentation. PLoS Med. 2008;5(11):e217. PubMed   |  Link to Article

3. Nestle  M. Food Politics Blog. Accessed March 2, 2016.

4. Mugambi  MN, Musekiwa  A, Lombard  M, Young  T, Blaauw  R.  Association between funding source, methodological quality and research outcomes in randomized controlled trials of synbiotics, probiotics and prebiotics added to infant formula: a systematic review. BMC Med Res Methodol. 2013;13:137. PubMed   |  Link to Article
5. Bero  L.  What is in a name? Nonfinancial influences on the outcomes of systematic reviews and guidelines. J Clin Epidemiol. 2014;67(11):1239-1241. PubMed   |  Link to Article 
6. Charles Perkins Centre. Engagement with Industry Guidelines 2015. University of Sydney, 2015. Accessed March 2, 2016.
**Richard Kahn is infamous in my circles for supporting the positions of the sugar and soda industries while with the American Diabetes Association and now.  I wrote about what he said in an interview with Corporate Crime Reporter in my book What to Eat (pages 355-356).  Recently, The Russells (of CrossFit) had a lot more to say about Kahn’s ongoing opposition to public health measures.
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