Are Fast Food companies using the Tobacco Industry’s manipulative tactics on consumers?
There is a lot of the discussion today about the obesity epidemic, health and fitness, organic food and the environmental damage caused by industrial farming. So this is a good time to recall the main conslusions of the 2009 Brownell/Warner article entitled:
« The Perils of Ignoring History : Big Tobacco Played Dirty and Millions Died. How Similar is Big Food ? »
It wouldn’t seem at first glance that the two industries have anything in common. Yet, two distinguished American Academics disagree: Kelly D. Brownell of Yale University and Kenneth E. Warner of the University of Michigan. They analysed empirical and historical evidence of the two industries. They also reviewed industry actions to influence public opinion, the scientific community, legislation and regulation.
In their article they point out alarming similarities in the behavoir of the two industries:
- in the way they treat and fight off criticism from scientists
- in the way they treat and fight off attempts by lawmakers to regulate their businesses
So, what are the 8 tactics common to both the Fast Food and Tobacco industries ?
1. Dismissing as « junk science » studies linking their products with disease
2. Paying willing scientists to produce studies favorable to their industry
3. Developping doubt in the public’s mind about the health damage caused by their products
4. Marketing to children and adolescents
5. Creating « safer » products to respond to scientific criticism: Tobacco Industry: filtered cigarettes
Processed Food Industry: KFC removing trans-fats from their products
6. Vowing to regulate their own industry (ie: the fox guarding the hen house)
7. Denying the addictive aspect of their products
8. Using their massive financial clout to lobby against regulatory action by governments
Of course the 2 industries are different in some ways :
-Cigarettes are one product made by a multitude of producers whereas Fast Food has a large number of products made by a multitude of companies.
-The addictive nature of nicotine is proven, even though the tobacco industry denied it for many years. The addictive nature of fast-food/processed food is now being studied.
“Will we learn from the past tricks of the Tobacco Industry or will we, as consumers, be « played » with the same tactics, only this time by a different industry ?”
Other areas of similarity are :
-Appealing to the moral high ground by stating that consumer health is their primary concern but doing very little to take effective measures in that realm :
Cigarette companies, no longer able to deny the damaging effects of smoking, added filters to their cigarettes. (Ironically the first filters placed in mass-produced cigarettes contained asbetos !) They then claimed it was « safe » to smoke. Their plumetting sales took a turn for the better.
Similarly, many industrial food companies now claim loud and clear that they have responded to consumers’ concerns and reduced the salt, sugar, and fat in their products. But when viewed more closely they’ve really reduced only a small amount of those ingredients, though they make it sound as though it’s a more significant quantity. In this way they fool the consumer into thinking it’s now safe to eat as much as they want of these products. The KFC example of taking out the trans-fats in their products illustrates this : they added a similar number of calories from other fats, so while the health danger of trans fats was erased, the high amount of calories in their products remain the same. However, soon after the elimination of trans fats, KFC produced TV advertisements to the effect that you could now eat as much KFC fried chicken as you wanted because the trans-fats had been removed!
-Appealing to personal responsibility : (Eat less, exercise more)
In the case of cigarettes, people would start young due to aggressive marketing by tobacco companies, and progressivley the addictive nature of nicotine sabotaged personal responsibility.
While science has determined some aspect of addictiveness in sugar, no clear link has yet been determined for junk food. Yet, when one observes how people are consuming junk food, and the quantity they are consuming even when they know it’s bad for them, addiction could be a possibility.
Furthermore, the aggressive marketing of Fast Food via tv ads – or by placing soda/candy machines in schools – undermines parental authority and the ability of parents to make healthy food choices for their children.
Why is all this important to know ?
The health implications for people due to obesity-related illnesses are devastating (cardio-vascular disease, Type 2 Diabetes, sleep apnea, cancer, infertility, to name a few). The financial implications for governments could be ruinous: The former Surgeon General of the United States, Richard Carmona, M.D., stated in a conference in 2008 that the greatest threat to US National Security was not Islamic Terrorism, but the epidemic of obesity, calling it “the terror within”. In his opinion, it will cost the U.S. far more in human and financial capital (due to healthcare costs) than any terrorist threat. Since an important percentage of the present generation of US children is obese (almost 20% of all American children aged 2-19 years old as of 2009-2010) (1), this will have an effect on the future of the US workforce, the US military (where will future soldiers come from?) and the government’s financial stability. More than 75 % of US Healthcare spending is due to chronic disease (2). Poor diet, physical inactivity, smoking and alcohol are leading causes of chronic illness among Americans. The USDA has stated in the past that healthier diets could save approximately $87 billion annually in healthcare costs and lost productivity (3).
Obesity has now reached epidemic proportions and not just in the US. The problem is global. So will we learn from the past tricks of Tobacco companies or will we, as consumers, be « played » with the same tactics, only this time by a different industry ?
What do you think? Have you noticed these or other tactics used by the fast food industry?
1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. NCHS Obesity Data: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db288.htm
2. CDC Chronic Disease Overview. Atlanta, GA: CDC, 2008.
3. Frazao, Elizabeth: “High Costs of Poor Eating Habits in the United States.” In America’s Eating Habits: Changes and Consequences. Edited by E. Frazao. Washington D.C. Economic Research Service, USDA, 1999. Agriculture Information Bulletin No 750 pp 5-32. Numbers have been adjusted for inflation from their 1999 values. https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/42215/5830_aib750a_1_.pdf?v=41055