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.

Thoughts?

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, FoodNavigator.com 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.

Sep 23 2014

No, the U of California does NOT forbid faculty to express opinions about the soda tax

Last Friday, I received a phone call from Todd Kerr, the publisher of The Berkeley Times, a community newspaper in Berkeley, CA.  He was preparing a story on the Berkeley soda tax and could not find University of California (UC) faculty who were willing to speak with him.

They were, they told him, under a gag order from the president’s office not to talk to reporters about the soda tax.

I can understand his frustration.  I spoke or e-mailed about 10 people with knowledge of this issue and only two would allow me to quote them for attribution.

For starters, the idea of a gag order seems contrary to current practice.

But the rumor is serious and deserves investigation.

I sent out queries to try to find out if the rumor could have any basis in fact.

Mr. Kerr kicked off the process by giving me the names of the three faculty members he said had refused to speak with him about the soda tax.

I was able to track them down.  Here is what they told me (not for direct quotation or attribution):

  • Source #1: Mr. Kerr had asked scientific questions outside the respondent’s area of expertise.
  • Source #2: Mr. Kerr stated that his paper does not take a stance on issues, so HE can’t write for or against the tax.  This respondent’s understanding is that Berkeley faculty members can state opinions on any voting matter as long as they do not claim to speak for the university.
  • Source #3: University counsel advised this respondent that faculty can say what they want as private citizens, but not as UC employees.  This source’s understanding is that state employees are not permitted to work to alter the conduct or outcome of matters on which the public is voting.  And, if the food industry were to sue a faculty member for something said in the course of an election campaign, the university would not provide legal resources or defense.

Source #3’s comments especially demanded further inquiry.  I did some more consultation of UC faculty, legal staff, and professional staff.

UC policy on political speech is governed by state law

As one source explained, there is no gag order on faculty.  There are, however, state statutes that limit the University’s ability to take positions on ballot measures that are before the voters (be sure to look at the Webinar slide show).  These state in a Q and A:

May a University employee endorse a ballot measure in his/her private capacity and identify himself/herself by University title?

Yes. A University official may allow use of his/her name and title for identification purposes in the same manner as others who sign an endorsement. An express disclaimer of University endorsement is required only where the context might reasonably cause confusion as to whether the endorsement is made in an official or unofficial capacity.

My queries eventually landed in the Office of the President of the UC System.  Steve Montiel, Media Relations Director, one of only two people in all of this who was willing to be quoted by name, said:

All University of California employees, including faculty, have the right to express their personal opinions about any matter of civic importance, including ballot measures. Consistent with state law, however, longstanding University policy prohibits university resources from being used to oppose or support a ballot measure. Only the UC Board of Regents can take a public position on a ballot measure, and it has done so in the past.

I also consulted Michele Simon (the second quotable) about state policy.  She notes that this is standard policy for institutions receiving state funding.  UC is a state school and, therefore, is not allowed to use state funds to take political positions.

She reminded me that at Stanford, a private institution, Henry Miller of the conservative Hoover Institute violated Stanford’s no-position policy on ballot measures when he did a TV ad opposing Proposition 37, the GMO labeling initiative, using his Stanford affiliation.

When we learned of the ‘No on 37 ‘ commercial, we immediately asked to have it changed so it would be in compliance with Stanford policies,” said Debra Zumwalt, the university’s vice president and general counsel. “While everyone at Stanford is entitled to espouse whatever political view he or she may choose, we do not allow people affiliated with Stanford to take a political position in a way that could imply that it is Stanford’s position.”

In my own experience, UC’s policy also sounds like standard practice.  When the Sugar Association threatened me with a lawsuit (see documents under Controversies at the bottom of the Media pages), that’s pretty much what NYU lawyers told me.  If I said something libelous, I would be responsible for the legal consequences.  Luckily, the Sugar Association never sued.

So—how did this rumor get started?  

Here’s what I learned.

A group of faculty advocating for the soda tax asked to meet with university legal counsel for advice about how to protect themselves and the university against potential lawsuits filed by, for example, the American Beverage Association (ABA), which has been especially aggressive in fighting the tax.  The ABA’s actions reminded them of the cigarette industry’s fight with the UC system over the tobacco control archives now housed at UCSF.

Some of the legal advice to faculty—if you speak at a soda tax rally, represent yourself as an individual,not a representative of the university, and do so on your own, not the university’s time—can be interpreted as restrictive even if it is not meant as such.

UC’s policy on academic freedom

Please note that UC, since the time of the Free Speech Movement, has developed a clear policy on academic freedom:

…academic freedom depends upon the quality of scholarship, which is to be assessed by the content of scholarship, not by the motivations that led to its production. The [policy]…does not distinguish between “interested” and “disinterested” scholarship; it differentiates instead between competent and incompetent scholarship. Although competent scholarship requires an open mind, this does not mean that faculty are unprofessional if they reach definite conclusions. It means rather that faculty must always stand ready to revise their conclusions in the light of new evidence or further discussion. Although competent scholarship requires the exercise of reason, this does not mean that faculty are unprofessional if they are committed to a definite point of view. It means rather that faculty must form their point of view by applying professional standards of inquiry rather than by succumbing to external and illegitimate incentives such as monetary gain or political coercion. Competent scholarship can and frequently does communicate salient viewpoints about important and controversial questions [my emphasis].

My translation: if faculty opinions about the soda tax are based on research—and plenty of research is available to back up the rationale for and potential efficacy of such a tax (see Rudd Center and Bridging the Gap)—faculty not only have the right but also have the responsibility to express opinions about them.

UC faculty: get out there and support the tax!

And wish the FSM a happy 50th anniversary.

 

May 27 2014

Olivier de Schutter finishes tenure as UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food

Olivier de Schutter must be finishing up his six-year term as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.

His final report to the U. N. Human Rights Council

Objectives such as supplying diverse, culturally-acceptable foods to communities, supporting smallholders, sustaining soil and water resources, and raising food security within particularly vulnerable areas, must not be crowded out by the one-dimensional quest to produce more food,

In a speech to the annual summit of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Reuters reports: 

Unhealthy diets are now a greater threat to global health than tobacco. Just as the world came together to regulate the risks of tobacco, a bold framework convention on adequate diets must now be agreed, he said.

De Schutter, who has held his post of special rapporteur on the right to food since 2008 and earlier headed the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights, reports to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.

In 2005, a U.N. convention on tobacco control aimed at reducing deaths and health problems caused by the product went into force after long negotiations under the umbrella of the WHO.

In a report to the rights council in 2012, de Schutter said a similar accord on food should include taxing unhealthy products, regulating food high in saturated fats, salt and sugar, and “cracking down on junk food advertising.”

That report also called for an overhaul on the system of farm subsidies “that make certain ingredients cheaper than others”, and for support for local production “so that consumers have access to healthy, fresh and nutritious foods.”

De Schutter  reports that public procurement can and should be used to ‘buy justice’ in food systems (also see press release):

“Public procurement represents a rare opportunity to support more nutritious diets and more sustainable food systems in one fell swoop,” he said, as he released his final publication as UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food.

Recalling that OECD countries spend an average of 12% of GDP on public procurement, and developing countries only slightly less, he identified five principles for using public procurement to support the realization of the right to food:

  • Source preferentially from small-scale food producers and help them to access tenders
  • Guarantee living wages and fair prices along the food supply chain
  • Set specific requirements for adequate food diets
  • Source locally whenever possible and impose sustainability requirements on suppliers; and
  • Increase participation and accountability in the food system

De Schutter has done honorable work as Special Rapporteur and his role in this position will be missed.

Feb 11 2014

Room for Debate: CVS to stop selling cigarettes

The New York Times Room for Debate blog asked me to comment on What other unhealthy products should CVS stop selling?

Here’s my response: Next, Cut the Soda and Junk Food.

Good for CVS! Cigarettes are in a class by themselves. The evidence that links cigarette smoking to lung cancer and other serious health problems is overwhelming, unambiguous and incontrovertible. So is the evidence that the mere presence of cigarettes is sufficient to create demand, especially among young people.

When the anti-cigarette smoking movement began, the issues were simple: stop people from starting to smoke and get people who smoked to stop — by making it difficult, uncomfortable and expensive for smokers to continue their habit. The ultimate goal? Put cigarette companies out of business. This, of course, has been politically impossible, not least because cigarette companies pay such high taxes.

If CVS wants to promote health, it could increase sales of healthy snacks, and stop selling sugary foods and drinks.

Although there are many parallels in company marketing practices, food is not tobacco. For all tobacco products, the response is simple: stop. Food is more complicated. We must eat to survive. A great number of foods meet nutritional needs. The evidence that links a particular food product to health is often uncertain. This is because each food is only one component of a diet that contains many foods in a lifestyle that might involve other factors that affect health: activity, alcohol, drugs, stress and let’s not forget genetics.

With that said, if CVS really wants to promote health, it could consider increasing its sales of fruits, vegetables and healthy snacks, and stop selling sodas, ice cream, chips and other junk foods. Those foods may not have the same bad effect on health as tobacco, but eating too much of them on a regular basis is associated with weight gain, obesity and the conditions for which obesity is a risk factor, like Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. If CVS wants to counter obesity, dropping soft drinks is a good place to start. They have scads of sugars, and kids who drink them regularly take in more calories, are fatter and have worse diets than kids who do not.

Jan 10 2014

Action on Sugar to the food industry: reduce sugar now!

A group of public health experts based mainly in Britain have announced a new anti-sugar campaign.

Called Action on Sugar, it is modeled on Great Britain’s campaign to get the food industry to gradually reduce salt in processed foods—voluntarily.  That campaign is considered to have led to a reduction of 25% to 40%.

Action on Sugar’s objective: Reduce sugar in packaged foods by 20% to 30% over the next 3 to 5 years.

Action on Sugar is a group of specialists concerned with sugar and its effects on health. It is successfully working to reach a consensus with the food industry and Government over the harmful effects of a high sugar diet, and bring about a reduction in the amount of sugar in processed foods. Action on Sugar is supported by 18 expert advisors.

As one of the experts put it, “Everywhere, sugary drinks and junk foods are now pressed on unsuspecting parents and children by a cynical industry focused on profit not health”—just like the tobacco industry behaves.

You have to love the British press:

New Picture

Enjoy the weekend!

 

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