Food industry messaging pulled from Big Tobacco playbook

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"Is Big Food the new tobacco?" wondered a group of food and beverage industry executives at a recent New York conference dedicated to addressing legal challenges to their industries. We don't often hear it from industry representatives themselves, but it's not the first time in recent memory a major industry has faced comparisons to the tobacco industry. Debates around estrogenic chemicals in children's products, gun control and climate change, for example, have prompted advocates to argue that chemical companies and the gun lobby, among others, are taking a page from the tobacco industry's playbook, a series of tactics the industry designed to spread misinformation about, undermine regulation of, and thwart litigation against its harmful products.

A cornerstone of the tobacco industry's playbook involved using personal responsibility rhetoric — that is, arguments that shifted the responsibility for tobacco-related health harms solely to those who smoke, rather than the companies that produced and marketed toxic (and deadly) products. At BMSG, we have dedicated several years to exploring when and how the tobacco industry first started using personal responsibility arguments in their public conversations.

Our first study of the issue, an analysis of news, legislative testimony and industry documents from the early 1950s and 60s, found that early tobacco control arguments — including those made on the heels of the 1964 Surgeon General's report that declared smoking a public health problem — were striking for their absence of appeals to personal responsibility. Instead, the tobacco industry used the news primarily to raise doubt about whether or not their products were truly harmful.

Our latest study revealed that it wasn't until 1977 that the tobacco industry started using the news to disseminate personal responsibility messages. Those messages became more and more common in the news over time, eventually becoming the industry's main public argument in the 1980s.

Over the course of the more than two decades of news coverage we studied, the industry refined its messages around individual responsibility to address the political challenges it faced: In the early 1970s, Big Tobacco used arguments that characterized smoking as an issue of personal freedom and, therefore, claimed that any efforts to regulate smoking were a violation of that freedom. By the 1980s, when the industry was facing legal challenges from smokers and their families, Big Tobacco framed smoking as an informed choice that consumers knowingly made — a framing that neatly ignored tobacco addiction. Consequently, the argument held, smokers themselves, not the industry, were responsible for the health consequences of that choice.

Again and again, we've seen Big Food use similar arguments that portray consumers as solely responsible for health harms that result from consuming their products. Food and beverage companies often subtly invoke individual choice and personal responsibility, as the American Beverage Association does with its slogan "Delivering Choices." At other times, industry attempts to deflect blame are more direct. For example, industry representatives often blame consumers for failing to exercise moderation, like the National Restaurant Association did when one of its executives declared, "People who have a weight problem are making bad decisions. Overeating is a choice." More recently, Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent defended his company in the Wall Street Journal, arguing "Americans need to be more active and take greater responsibility for their diets."

So is Big Food the next Big Tobacco? And what do our findings mean for public health and social justice advocates going forward? Much research and scholarship has compared the food industry's tactics to Big Tobacco's playbook. Our work brings the origin and impact of a key element of that playbook into sharper focus and illuminates how the industry strategically adapted its personal responsibility messaging over time. Advocates working on policies that challenge the many industries harming health, from food to guns, should continue to boldly confront this strategy for blocking regulation and insist that the companies themselves exercise some personal responsibility for the products they foist upon the marketplace.

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