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.

Aug 19 2015

Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of favorable research: the saga continues

When the New York Times published an article describing Coca-Cola’s financial sponsorship of university researchers who de-emphasize the role of sugary drinks in raising the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes, it kicked up a storm.

USA Today’s editorial board said:

It isn’t that companies pay scientists to put out false research. It’s that companies fund the work of scientists who happen to be doing research that spurs consumers to look away from science that hurts corporate interests.

Soft drinks are far less dangerous than cigarettes, but GEBN’s website, tweets and videos come right out of Big Tobacco’s playbook, brought into the digital era. Its leaders have done research in the past under about $3 million in grants given to their universities.

USA Today also printed a response by a Coca-Cola spokesman:

A recent New York Times article created confusion about our support of research and non-profit organizations, stating we want people to think that only exercise matters and not diet — but nothing could be further from the truth. We have always operated under the fact that a healthy, balanced diet and regular exercise are key ingredients for a healthy lifestyle.

That said, we need to do a better job of being even more transparent about the research we fund, the non-profit organizations we support and the way we publicly share this information. And we will.

Yesterday, Senator Richard Blumenthal sent letters to the University of Colorado, West Virginia University, and the University of South Carolina urging them to  clarify the nature of the University’s relationship with projects funded by Coca-Cola and to review the academic integrity of such grant agreements.

I believe your university must determine whether this research is in effect promoting a predisposed and biased agenda, rather than reflecting the impartiality and objectively (sic) expected from a public academic institution.

Years of litigation with tobacco companies were necessary to fully expose the tragic public health consequences when companies lie about the hazards of the products they sell.  I am deeply concerned that we may force future generations to relive this history if corporate-sponsored studies devoid of scientific integrity are permitted once again to deceptively downplay and conceal the dangers of a product consumed on a mass scale.

Do not underestimate Senator Blumenthal’s ability to deal with food companies.  He, you may recall, was responsible for withdrawal in 2009 of the ill-conceived Smart Choices program during his stint as Connecticut’s attorney general.

I’m still waiting for the Global Calorie Balance Network to issue its promised statement.  Stay tuned.

Aug 13 2015

The Guardian: Coca-Cola says its drinks don’t cause obesity. Science says otherwise

I wrote this piece for The Guardian in response to the New York Times article earlier this week about Coca-Cola’s funding of scientists who think obesity is more about exercise than drinking sodas:

These days, you almost have to feel sorry for soda companies. Sales of sugar-sweetened and diet drinks have been falling for a decade in the United States, and a new Gallup Poll says 60% of Americans are trying to avoid drinking soda. In attempts to reverse these trends and deflect concerns about the health effects of sugary drinks, the soda industry invokes elements of the tobacco industry’s classic playbook: cast doubt on the science, discredit critics, invoke nanny statism and attribute obesity to personal irresponsibility.

Casting doubt on the science is especially important to soda makers. Overwhelming evidence links habitual consumption of sugary drinks to poor health. So many studies have identified sodas as key contributors to chronic health conditions – most notably obesity, type-2 diabetes and coronary artery disease – that the first thing anyone trying to stay healthy should do is to stop drinking them.

Soda companies know this. For at least the last 10 years, Coca-Cola’s annual reports to the US Securities and Exchange Commission have listed obesity and its health consequences as the single greatest threat to the company profits. The industry counters this threat with intensive marketing, lobbying and millions of dollars poured into fighting campaigns to tax or cap the size of sugary drinks.

But it is also pours millions into convincing researchers and health professionals to view sodas as benign.

Just last month, the Mayo Clinic Proceedings published a study arguing that the results of national dietary surveys, such as those that link sugary drinks to type-2 diabetes, are so flawed that they constitute a major misuse of public funds. The authors report honoraria, speaking and consulting fees from Coca-Cola.

This week’s revelation of Coca-Cola’s funding of the Global Energy Balance Network is only the latest example of this strategy in action. The Network promotes the idea that to prevent obesity you don’t need to bother about eating less or drinking less soda. You just have to be more active. Never mind that most people can’t lose weight without also reducing their intake.

A reporter who looked into this group discovered that Coca-Cola had funded the research of the scientists behind it, and generously. The network’s website was registered to Coca-Cola. None of this, however, had been made explicit.

Most nutrition professional journals now require researchers to declare who funds their studies, making it possible to compare study outcomes with funding sources. Studies sponsored by Coca-Cola almost invariably report no association of sugary drinks with diabetes, they question the validity of studies that do find such associations or, as in the case of Global Energy Balance Network investigators, they find activity to be the most important determinant of body weight.

Analyses of studies funded by Coca-Cola or its trade association demonstrate that they have an 83% probability of producing results suggesting no harm from soda consumption. In contrast, the same percentage of studies funded by government agencies or independent foundations find clear linkages between sugary beverages and such conditions. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Since March, I’ve been posting industry-funded studies with results that favor the sponsor’s interests every time I find five of them. They are easy to find. Despite pleas to readers to send me industry-funded studies that do not favor the sponsor, I hardly ever get them. Whenever I come across a study that shows no harm from sodas, I immediately look to see who paid for it.

Soda companies spend generously to convince researchers and health professionals not to worry about sodas’ health effects. But why do researchers take the money? It is too simplistic to say that they are “bought.” Industry-funded investigators say they believe the funding has no effect on the design, conduct or interpretation of their research. But research involves choices of questions, assumptions and methods. It is not difficult to carry out a study that appears to meet high scientific standards yet fails to include critical controls that might lead to alternative conclusions.

Researchers funded by Coca-Cola need to take special care to control for unconscious biases but can only do this if they recognize the possibility. Many do not. Neither do many peer reviewers or editors of scientific journals. Although food-company financial support should not necessarily bias results, it appears to do so in practice.

Industry-funded scientists resent questioning of the influence of sponsorship on the quality of their science. They charge that investigators who find adverse effects of sodas on health are equally biased by career goals, righteous zeal or anti-corporate morality. Yes, independent scientists may have biases of their own, but their overarching research goal is to improve public health. In contrast, the goal of soda companies is to use research as a marketing tool.

Disclosure is essential. If a study is funded by Coca-Cola, caveat emptor.

Aug 12 2015

Coca-Cola’s promotion of activity: a follow up

I’ve had a busy week dealing with the aftermath of Anahad O’Connor’s New York Times story about how Coca-Cola pays scientists who argue that obesity is more about activity than what you eat—drinking sodas, for example (I’m quoted).   It’s gotten 1180 comments.

Here’s Dan Wasserman’s from the Boston Globe:

In all fairness, let’s see what Coca-Cola’s Chief Technical Officer, Dr. Ed Hays, says in response (straight out of the tobacco industry’s playbook):

I was dismayed to read the recent New York Times’ inaccurate portrayal of our company and our support of the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN). The story claimed Coke is funding scientific research to convince people that diets don’t matter – only exercise. In fact, that is the complete opposite of our approach to business and well-being and nothing could be further from the truth.

Yes, we fund scientific research through GEBN and we are proud to support the work that scientists such as Dr. Jim Hill and Dr. Steve Blair do – because their type of research is critical to finding solutions to the global obesity crisis.

At Coke, we believe that a balanced diet and regular exercise are two key ingredients for a healthy lifestyle and that is reflected in both our long-term and short-term business actions.

The article even got the attention of Congress.  Here’s the statement from Rosa de Lauro (Dem-CT), sponsor of The SWEET Act to tax sugars:

This research is reminiscent of the research conducted by the tobacco companies to mislead the public about the health risks of smoking.  The American public will not be fooled. There is a wealth of sound scientific research that demonstrates the link between sugar-sweetened beverage consumption and a host of health conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.  This new group and their research are a sham,” DeLauro said.  “People want to be healthy and they want their kids to be healthy and realize that drinks full of empty calories are not good for them. That is why more and more Americans are opting to drink less soda every year.

I wrote a piece for The Guardian, which I will post tomorrow.

I don’t keep track of my interviews or media appearances unless people send me links (I post them under Media), but Rachel Harrison at NYU kept score yesterday.  As I said, a busy couple of days.

Additions, August 14

Fox News, August 11

  • Shepard Smith says “the story “reminds you of exactly what the tobacco industry did back in day, and more recently, it also reminds you of what the climate deniers — the climate change deniers — are doing as well.”
  • Rush Limbaugh said the Times‘ Coca-Cola story “undermine[s] the whole notion of a scientific consensus,” because it “can be bought and paid for.”

New York Times editorial, August 14

the evidence continues to mount that sugar-sweetened drinks are a major contributor to obesity, heart disease and diabetes, and that exercise makes only a modest contribution to weight loss compared to ingesting fewer calories.

Jul 28 2015

Trans-Pacific Partnership’s food issues: rice, sugar, Malaysian palm-oil, trans fats

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations are taking place this week in Maui, as usual, in deep secret.

Doug Palmer of Pro Politico describes the major food issues: dairy, origin names, pork, rice, and sugar.  The issues come down to market share.  Every country wants to protect its own products but have free access to markets in other countries.

Although not a food, tobacco best explains why the TPP makes people nervous.  US tobacco companies want the TPP to open new markets.  But one of the TPP provisions is said to allow corporations sue governments that pass rules that might hurt the corporation’s business.  Philip Morris sued Australia over its “plain packaging” law and is now suing Great Britain.

The US position is supposedly that a country’s measures  to protect the health of humans, animals, or plants should not be in violation of the TPP, and that challenges to tobacco-control measures should be cleared with TPP partners.   Malaysia, for example, has proposed to exempt tobacco-control measures from challenges under TPP.


The State Department has just taken Malaysia off its list of the worst countries for human trafficking (see the July 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report).

What a coincidence.  This allows Malaysia to participate in TPP negotiations.

But what bad timing.  The Wall Street Journal has just published a harrowing story about the de facto slavery of palm-oil workers on Malaysian plantations (the New York Times just did one on “sea slaves” forced to fish for pet food or animal feed).

As Rainforest Action Network said of the Malaysia story in a press release:

July 27, 2015 (SAN FRANCISCO) – The Obama administration has removed Malaysia from the list of worst offenders for human trafficking and forced labor today, one day after The Wall Street Journal published an extensive report on human trafficking and forced labor on Malaysian palm oil plantations that directly supply major U.S. companies. Malaysia is one of 12 nations in the contentious Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, and inclusion of a country with the lowest ranking in the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report would be problematic for the administration.

And then, there’s the trans-fat connection:  The US demand for replacement of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils has pushed Malaysia and other palm-oil countries to produce more palm oil, faster.

The Wall Street Journal explains:

Palm oil has been repeatedly named on the U.S. Department of Labor’s list of industries that involve forced and child labor, most recently in 2014. Activists have blamed palm-oil plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia for large-scale deforestation and human-rights abuses. Oil palm growers respond that the palm tree, a high-yield crop, is a useful tool for socioeconomic development.

palm oil

The TPP is hard to understand, not least because negotiations are secret.  In giving the President the go-ahead to sign the agreement, Congress made two stipulations:

  • Congress must be notified 90 days in advance of signing.
  • The terms of the agreement must be disclosed to the public 60 days prior to signing.

At least that.  TPP deserves very close scrutiny.

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