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

    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

    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

    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

    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.

  • Pingback: Worthy Reads This Week | Mango About Town()

  • Pingback: Food Politics » Is Big Food the new Tobac...()

  • 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

    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.

  • Pingback: 5 white vegetables to eat for your health; the value of keeping a food journal ... - Grow Your Own()

  • Pingback: 10 Things Today Crop Protection Canada Tuesday April 22, 2014 |()

  • Pingback: Los Alimentos son Ahora los Nuevos Cigarrillos | AnaMariaQuispe's Blog()

  • I think the problem here is not that people may or may not die or become ill as an individual from choosing to smoke cigarettes or eat unhealthy foods. The problem is that food has changed so much over a short period of time (its convenience, price, availability and contents) and there is a never ending barrage of media which report “studies” claiming health benefits to so many ingredients and foods which also are constantly changing that consumers are confused or even passive now to information making the decision making very difficult.

    Take for example yogurt, deli meat or even bread – some food staples generations have always consumed – but 30 years ago yogurt did not contain 27g of refined sugar per serving and deli meat or bread equally did not contain the amount of salt and sugar it does today.

    Also, there has been decades of missing nutritional and cooking skills being taught in schools. The average person today would not know how much salt, sugar, fat, protein they should be consuming per day and so the labels on our foods now which give RDA or even just in the quantity contained (ie. 27g), it means very little to the average consumer.

    The food industry is using cheaper ingredients (refined sugars etc) to cut corners and make more profit. Their products can say “low fat” to pertain to those who are on constant fad diets based on poor science (bc good fats are good for you and sugar is not), and to extend shelf life etc. Food companies are just as bad as tobacco companies in their strategy and intentions to continue to make money over public health needs.

    This however isn’t to say food companies have any responsibility in safeguarding public health, because they do not. Their interests lie in complete conflict with public health goals of reducing the consumption of foods that are high in salt, sugar and fat causing non-communicable diseases like diabetes Type 2, heart disease and various cancers. The food companies are responsible to their shareholders and to survive in a competitive neo-liberal global market. Who is responsible are governments, who’s direct job is to safeguard public health from 3rd parties who have other goals (The food industry) and to govern, whereas, food companies should be following the rules not making them as they do today – and as the tobacco industry was able to do in the past. Such global companies have a lot of power and money – giving them all the resources to fight against legislation and influence policy – but for the wrong reasons which is why the government was right to legislate against tobacco use, making a huge positive impact on public health (saving the state a lot in health care costs for treating smoking related conditions), which today is urgently needed to be done by governments in order to tackle NCD’s costing states billions!

    Every smoker knows that when trying to quit its easier to do when no one around you is smoking, when no one around you approves of smoking and when you know that smoking increases your chance of disease and death (without having conflicting information thrown at you to justify your habit)…these healthier environments help people lead healthier lives and chose healthier options…this is what needs to be regulated – so people can live their lives with optimal health – no just being kept alive!