How The Food And Drink Industries Use Big Tobacco’s Strategies To Undermine Public Health

The powerful companies in the food, drink, and alcohol industries — defined as “unhealthy commodity” companies — are circumventing public health policies by employing the same tactics that Big Tobacco uses, health experts reported on Tuesday. After analyzing the multinational businesses’ marketing strategies, researchers concluded the industry needs tighter outside regulation to prevent it from driving the global epidemic of chronic diseases.

Even though the public health community has attempted to cooperate with “unhealthy commodity” companies, the researchers say that efforts to encourage these industries to self-regulate are failing. Instead, the companies are consolidating power by building financial connections with health agencies and non-governmental organizations — and using that power to lobby politicians to oppose health reforms, much like Big Tobacco exerted control over Washington in the 1950s and 60s:

The researchers said that through the aggressive marketing of ultra-processed food and drink, multinational companies were now major drivers of the world’s growing epidemic of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

Writing in The Lancet medical journal, the researchers cited industry documents they said revealed how companies seek to shape health legislation and avoid regulation. […]

They cited analysis of published research which found systematic bias from industry funding: articles sponsored exclusively by food and drinks companies were between four and eight times more likely to have conclusions that favored the companies than those not sponsored by them.

The researchers — an international team comprised of health experts from countries like Australia, Britian, and Brazil — recommended that food, drinks and tobacco corporations shouldn’t be allowed to have any role in influencing national or international policies on chronic diseases.


This isn’t the first time that comparisons have been drawn between Big Tobacco and Big Food — particularly since both industries’ marketing tactics rely on “personal responsibility” arguments that claim additional regulation isn’t necessary because it’s simply up to American consumers to make healthy choices. Tobacco brands and food companies have also both attempted to avoid scrutiny by repositioning themselves as socially responsible corporations, launching “public health” campaigns and rolling out “safer” products to give the impression that they’re already doing enough to work toward public health goals.

Of course, while it’s possible to eliminate tobacco from society, it’s not possible to eliminate the food or beverage industries — but Dr. David Katz, the co-founder of the Yale Prevention Research Center, explains the parallels are still undeniable. “Frankly we need to learn from the mistakes we made in public health with tobacco. We believed the half measures taken by the companies for far too long,” he told ABC News. “We do want food corporate citizenship. But the bad behavior deserves to be called out.”