A Lunchroom Lesson, Part 1: Repackaging Tobacco for a Food Fight

, former food systems & health analyst | March 18, 2015, 3:41 pm EDT
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For decades, the war against tobacco was at the forefront of public health and has been cited as one of the greatest victories in the 20th century. Public health advocates fought for higher tobacco taxes, marketing restrictions, and smoke-free institutions to cut smoking rates by half in less than 50 years. Factors that helped contribute to the tobacco fight were a strong scientific base about tobacco-related health consequences and growing social disapproval of tobacco companies’ marketing tactics. Similar to smoking, food has psychological, social and environmental factors that can influence behavior. Because of these similarities, public health researchers are calling obesity the “new tobacco”.

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

Childhood obesity and school lunch

Last month, the Union of Concerned Scientists released Lessons from the Lunchroom: Childhood Obesity, School Lunch, and the Way to a Healthier Future. The report focuses on the link between diet and obesity and the importance of school lunch in influencing children’s diets. Findings from the report reveal that children in the reduced-price school lunch program eat fruits and vegetables more frequently that children not enrolled in the program. This year, Congress is set to reauthorize legislation that regulates and funds the National School Lunch Program. Some politicians and parents, the food industry, and school professional organizations want to weaken nutrition standards in schools—even though early studies show that the standards are improving children’s diets. While some of the arguments to weaken these standards have already been publicized, I predict that others will mirror the arguments used by the tobacco industry.

My past research on the tobacco industry’s framing of arguments revealed that they focused on promoting individual choice and personal responsibility, inciting fear of big government (think “nanny state”), threatening economic insecurity, and accusing public health scientists of manipulating data about the consequences of smoking. I review each of these briefly:

Organic Tobacco

American Spirit Tobacco Ad in ESPN Magazine

1. Individual choice and personal responsibility

Tobacco companies insisted that consumers had a right to use tobacco as they pleased. They claimed that since consumers were presented with enough information to make an informed choice about tobacco, they should be allowed to choose whether or not to smoke. However, as revealed later in internal documents from the tobacco industry, consumers did not receive appropriate information to make informed choices about smoking.

2. Fear of big government

Tobacco companies often cited that restricting tobacco was just another way the government could take more rights away from the people. In response to proposed national tobacco legislation, the tobacco industry published an advertisement in The New York Times and Washington Post on April 22, 1998, leading with the headline, “Big Taxes, Big Government…There They Go Again”. They argued that the government should allow the market to give consumers what they wanted—cigarettes.

3. Economic security

The tobacco industry promoted its businesses by claiming that Americans benefited from their profits through the creation of jobs. They argued that their industry was supporting American farmers, and if the government were to hand down taxes or regulate tobacco further, they would have to lay their workers off as a result.

4. Misinformation

The tobacco industry publicly questioned the link between tobacco and cancer. They announced that there was no real scientific proof to show a causal link between the two. They also referred to public health statistics as “junk science”. Later on, the tobacco industry argued that any harms that smoking caused were so well known that tobacco users had enough information to make informed choices.

What to expect in the school lunch standards fight

Similar to the tobacco industry, the opponents of the updated nutrition standards might use economic security arguments such as that the standards hurt schools by reducing school lunch revenues. They might also question the evidence linking sugar-sweetened beverages and obesity. The food industry could also appeal to parents’ personal responsibility in that parents are responsible for their kids’ dietary choices.

Next week’s post will follow up with the counter-arguments that public health used to defend anti-tobacco policies, and how these arguments can be used in the fight to preserve the school nutrition standards.

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  • Bill Godshall

    As one who, since 1986, has campaigned to ban smoking in workplaces, stop cigarette marketing to youth, hold cigarette companies accountable in civil courts, increase cigarette tax rates, and mandate color graphic warnings on cigarette packs, I think it’s absurd and outrageous to compare the food industry to the cigarette industry of decades ago.

    But some left wingers will say anything to demonize corporations, deny personal freedom, impose their own lifestyle preferences on everyone else, and shove another federal program down our children’s throats (literally).

    As one who attended K-12 in the 1960s and 1970s, I always took a bagged lunch packed by my mother consisting of a baloney/cheese/lettuce/tomato/mayo sandwich on white bread, a handful of potato chips, and a chocolate chip cookie (along with a chocolate milk I bought from the cafeteria vending machine).

    I suspect that Ms. Haynes-Maslow and her “school food police” allies would ban (and probably already have banned) the lunch I ate in school during my childhood, and instead would allow me to eat only what they believe I should eat.

    Besides, for decades the federal nutritional guidelines (and the American Heart Association) promoted obesity and diabetes by encouraging people to eat less fat and more carbs.

    A better way to prevent adolescent obesity is to bring back recesses for K-6 students (we had two 15 minute recesses when I was in school), bring back mandatory physical education classes (we had two classes every week in 7-12th grade), organize more school and community coed softball, volleyball, soccer games for youth (we had many of these when I was a child).

    Bill Godshall
    Executive Director
    Smokefree Pennsylvania
    1926 Monongahela Avenue
    Pittsburgh, PA 15218
    [email protected]

  • Richard Solomon

    Thanks for this piece. I will read your research.

    For those who want to read about this in more depth, a book called The Merchants of Doubt provides a thorough and highly readable account of how the tobacco industry pressed its claims since the early 1950’s. It also has chapters on how similar tactics have been used by corporations opposed the prevention of acid rain, second hand smoke, and in recent years global warming. I recommend it highly.

    • Lindsey Haynes-Maslow

      Thank you Richard for the comment and the book suggestion! Another good book is “Distorting the Law: Politics, Media, and the Litigation Crisis” by Haltom and McCann. It has a great chapter on the “tobacco wars” and examines the different arguments used by opponents/proponents across three time periods.