A Lunchroom Lesson: Repackaging Tobacco for a Food Fight, Part 2

, food systems & health analyst | March 31, 2015, 5:18 pm EDT
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In Part 1 on repackaging tobacco for a food fight, I focused on the tobacco industry’s arguments to misguide the public and influence policymakers. This week, I focus on public health’s arguments to counter tobacco and how we might extend this to the debate on the National School Lunch Program, which Congress is set to reauthorize this year. During the tobacco debate, the public health community focused on the individual rights of non-smokers, being the underdog in a fight against Big Tobacco (think “David versus Goliath”), and misinformation from the tobacco industry about the health consequences of smoking.

[This post is the second of a two-part series.]

 1. Non-smoker’s rights & individual choice

The public health community argued that non-smokers should have the right to be free from the harmful effects of secondhand smoke in the workplace and public places. Similar to the tobacco industry promoting individual choice, the public health community argued that they were also protecting individual choice. They argued that because smokers were addicted to nicotine, the tobacco industry undermined their ability to exercise individual choice. Later, it was revealed that the tobacco industry manipulated nicotine levels and marketed to kids so smokers would become more easily addicted, and at younger ages.

Tobacco Fries

Image from www.nextnature.net “Junk Food or Tobacco?”

2. David versus Goliath

The public health community argued that tobacco should be regulated in society’s best interest: their health. Because tobacco users were addicted to a product, it was necessary for the government to regulate tobacco for everyone’s safety. To combat the image of a “nanny state” the public health community portrayed themselves as “David” fighting against the industry giant “Goliath” with little money and few resources.

3. Economic productivity

The public health community argued that smoking and the tobacco industry were actually counterproductive to economic security because smoking had serious health consequences. These health consequences decreased worker productivity and increased healthcare costs, both of which shook the foundation of economic security.

4. Misinformation

The tobacco industry knowingly misinformed the public about the health consequences of smoking. They used conflicting medical evidence when communicating to the public and hid negative scientific data about the harms of smoking to undermine evidence put forth by the public health community.

Tobacco and food: how are they different?

It is important to keep in mind that although food is similar to tobacco, they are different. Although we can conclude that tobacco has no health benefits, we cannot claim that for all food. Food is a necessary requirement for our bodies and our existence. We can recommend that people stop smoking, but we can’t recommend they stop eating.

Going forward

The way a public health issue is framed affects public opinion, individual behavior, and policy formation. During the fight against the tobacco industry, early tobacco-control legislation failed because the tobacco industry marketed their public messages effectively—framing arguments to suggest that smoking was about individual choice. Only after publicizing the tobacco industry’s manipulation of nicotine levels, the harms of secondhand smoke, and intentional advertising to youth did public support for smoking decrease, which allowed policymakers to seize the opportunity to successfully enact tobacco-control legislation.

While the National School Lunch Program is still a very young debate, where will you stand in 2015 for our children’s health?

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