by Marion Nestle
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?

  • Anthro

    Brilliant idea! Who to write to to suggest such a merger?

    The biggest problem with the obesity effort is along the lines of Michelle Obama’s poorly named “Let’s Move” campaign. As long as the food industry gets away with implying that we are fat because we don’t exercise enough (while ignoring the calories “in” and more relevant half of the equation), the argument of “personal responsibility” is going to stick. By teaming up with the proven tactics of the anti-smoking folks, we might be able to make some progress against this false argument.

    On another note that demonstrates the necessity of vigilance on the smoking front: Both of the republican candidates for governor here in Wisconsin, have come out in favor of reversing our brand new statewide public smoking ban!

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  • The message should be…care about your health. If you care about your health, you are not going to smoke and the fast food, junk food, fried food, etc. will never touch your lips.

    Ken Leebow

  • I agree. This issues go hand in hand in increasing overall health. One in three are obese, and one in 5 still smoke…clearly both issues are still compelling problems that need to be addressed.

  • You mention that Smoking is the cause of the most number of preventable deaths in the US. But the way that deaths are reported, deaths from heart disease are not reported as related to obesity, because some are and some aren’t. We don’t know how many deaths obesity is causing because of the process of record keeping.
    I would bet that if there was a way to be exact about the number of deaths directly caused by obesity related illness versus smoking deaths we might all take a step back and really get a true picture of our national health.

  • ErinB

    By the headline, my first thought was that this would address the weight-gain that so often occurs when one quits smoking. In that case, a shift of funds would make sense! But seriously, this makes clear the problems that arise from competing priorities and a scarcity of dollars.

  • Joy

    Interesting. No secret that the very companies that were once Big Tobacco are now Big Food. In the 1960s and 70s they learned how to better addict people to cigarettes at earlier ages, and now they have successfully addicted people to salt-, sugar- and fat-laden food. As the US tries to get hold of a solution with packaging and penalties, they are moving their Big Food ways overseas, just as they moved their Big Tobacco ways. So the world gets fatter. And still government agencies grant them a seat at the table to ‘discuss’ ways to fix the problems they’ve been causing for decades. Problem is, they have all the money; and in legislation these days, money talks loudest. So subsidies and cheap junk food ingredients prevail. Is money more important than the health of a nation? We’ll see.

  • Ian Merrifield

    Not to mention that the target populations overlap pretty significantly, right? Why not tackle two problems at once while you have someone’s attention?

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