Food industry messaging pulled from Big Tobacco playbook

printer friendlyprinter friendly

"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.


tobacco industry (2) prison system (1) white house (1) Let's Move (1) Wendy Davis (1) sugar-sweetened beverages (2) Happy Meals (1) target marketing (9) Golden Gate Bridge (2) corporate social responsibility (1) food justice (1) new year's resolutions (1) HPV vaccine (1) Nickelodeon (1) community violence (1) genital warts (1) industry appeals to choice (1) Sam Kass (1) institutional accountability (1) breastfeeding (3) junk food (2) news monitoring (1) tobacco (5) filibuster (1) media (7) McDonald's (1) Amanda Fallin (1) equity (3) Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (2) social justice (2) summer camps (1) food and beverage marketing (3) Bill Cosby (1) Oglala Sioux (3) gun control (2) news coverage (1) soda warning labels (1) obesity (10) community health (1) messaging (3) SB 402 (1) Dora the Explorer (1) beauty products (1) front groups (1) mental health (2) nanny state (2) advocacy (3) American Beverage Association (1) childhood adversity (1) suicide barrier (2) campaign finance (1) health equity (10) digital marketing (3) Connecticut shooting (1) language (6) product safety (1) news strategy (1) racism (1) weight of the nation (1) vaccines (1) food access (1) Pine Ridge reservation (1) california (1) soda tax (11) communication (2) FCC (1) Texas (1) Big Tobacco (3) personal responsibility rhetoric (1) Newtown (1) Berkeley (2) Joe Paterno (1) health care (1) Citizens United (1) world water day (1) Marion Nestle (1) violence prevention (8) Twitter (1) safety (1) Chile (1) liana winett (1) SB 1000 (1) measure N (2) diabetes (1) San Francisco (3) soda industry (4) social media (2) strategic communication (1) Proposition 47 (1) sports drinks (1) race (1) childhood obestiy conference (1) built environment (2) cigarette advertising (1) tobacco tax (1) food environment (1) Big Food (2) healthy eating (1) Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (1) water security (1) elephant triggers (1) beverage industry (2) food marketing (5) chronic disease (2) Big Soda (2) PepsiCo (1) diabetes prevention (1) seat belt laws (1) abortion (1) education (1) Whiteclay (4) Telluride (1) election 2016 (1) online marketing (1) auto safety (1) social change (1) ssb (1) stigma (1) child sexual abuse (5) public health policy (2) food industry (4) media analysis (6) prison phone calls (1) emergency contraception (1) sexual violence (2) cap the tap (1) ACEs (2) journalism (1) youth (1) nonprofit communications (1) public health (71) Catholic church (1) news analysis (3) sanitation (1) soda (12) cosmetics (1) Michelle Obama (1) media advocacy (23) cancer research (1) paula deen (1) childhood obesity (1) Rachel Grana (1) communication strategy (1) sexual health (1) Coca-Cola (3) political correctness (1) water (1) regulation (2) Penn State (3) tobacco control (2) structural racism (1) snap (1) community safety (1) physical activity (1) childhood trauma (3) sandusky (2) junk food marketing to kids (2) reproductive justice (1) cancer prevention (1) Jerry Sandusky (3) sexual assault (1) media bites (1) obesity prevention (1) Tea Party (1) gatorade bolt game (1) Donald Trump (2) food swamps (1) Richmond (5) food (1) apha (3) framing (14) sexism (2) default frame (1) marketing (1) privilege (1) personal responsibility (3) Aurora (1) SSBs (1) Bloomberg (3) childhood lead poisoning (1) autism (1) Merck (1) choice (1) paper tigers (1) suicide prevention (2) social math (1) Gardasil (1) cervical cancer (1) alcohol (5) prevention (1) Black Lives Matter (1) values (1) suicide nets (1) inequities (1) environmental health (1) sugary drinks (10) Colorado (1) Twitter for advocacy (1) community (1) government intrusion (1) children's health (3) women's health (2) public health data (1) Food Marketing Workgroup (1) junk food marketing (4) El Monte (3) naacp (1) food deserts (1) cannes lions festival (1) soda taxes (2) authentic voices (1) gun violence (1) gender (1) democracy (1) Johnson & Johnson (1) Proposition 29 (1) collaboration (1) Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes (1) violence (2) Measure O (1) Oakland Unified School District (1) adverse childhood experiences (3) news (2) Sandy Hook (2) community organizing (1) SB-5 (1) george lakoff (1) indoor smoking ban (1)
  • Follow Us On Facebook
  • Follow Us On Twitter
  • Join Us On Youtube
  • BMSG RSS Feed

get e-alerts in your inbox: