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Big Food and Big Tobacco

Is history repeating itself?

By Christopher J. Stadtherr, MD

Big Food and Big Tobacco

There are some frightening parallels between the processed food industry and the tobacco industry.

It took decades of evidence to overturn the ingrained habits and beliefs about the health hazards of smoking. The tobacco manufacturers faced hundreds of lawsuits starting in the mid-1950s but were successful against all of them. Litigation efforts escalated into a national legislative settlement in 1998 to recover billions of dollars in health care costs and placing numerous restrictions on advertising. We're in a similar position with processed food, with mounting evidence showing the harms of ultra-processed foods.

The industries of Big Food and Big Tobacco share a few key similarities:

- Both are dominated by a few major companies.

- Both target young children with marketing to create lifelong customers.

- Both focus on creating addictive habits.

- Both blame the consumer for the harm caused by their products.

Tobacco companies invested heavily in the food industry and deployed their tactics to make food irresistible. In place of nicotine, the addictive snare in processed foods is high-fructose corn syrup.  Tobacco giant Philip Morris owned Kraft Foods and General Foods—merged together to become what was then the largest food company in the world.

A recent study examined the food brands owned by tobacco companies related to the hyperpalatable nature of such foods—combinations of ingredients (fat, sugar, sodium, and carbohydrates) that create an artificially rewarding eating experience. Such combinations of nutrients do not occur in nature, and they are associated with overconsumption of food.

These combinations of ingredients are expertly engineered to hit the “bliss point”—that sensory profile where you like food the most.

Foods that were developed by tobacco companies were 29 percent more likely to be fat-and-sodium hyperpalatable and 80 percent more likely to be carbohydrate-and-sodium hyperpalatable, compared to foods not produced by tobacco companies.

Big Food is working from the same playbook as Big Tobacco, utilizing the same deceptive tactics to create lifelong customers of ultra-processed food. These are powerful companies with significant market reach and brilliant marketing strategies. When it comes to food, the stakes are just as high as, if not more than, tobacco due to the perceived innocence of food products relative to cigarettes, as well as being considered a “necessary” item. We must avoid normalizing the consumption of these foods that are slowly destroying our health. 

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