The ‘tobaccoization’ of food is dangerous

by Keith Nunes
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KANSAS CITY — Some of the same strategies that have been used to rein in the tobacco industry and limit the sales of cigarettes now are being used to differentiate foods perceived as unhealthy from those perceived to have health benefits. The trend is dangerous and is something the public health community and the food and beverage industry must confront in an aggressive manner.

This past February I wrote a column about the drug store chain CVS’s decision to remove tobacco products from its stores by October 2014 and highlighted questions posed by reporters about whether the chain would consider a similar approach for “junk food.” Fortunately, the chain’s president and chief executive officer Larry J. Merlo accurately noted there is significant difference between a bar of chocolate or a sugar sweetened beverage to a pack of cigarettes.

On May 29 a bill passed the California Senate that would require a warning label to be placed on sodas and other sugar sweetened beverages sold in the state. If enacted, the bill would require a warning on the front of all beverage containers with added sweeteners that have 75 or more calories per 12 ozs, and the text of the label would read “STATE OF CALIFORNIA SAFETY WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay.” The legislation still must pass the California State Assembly, where it is expected to face strong opposition, and then, if it passes the Assembly, be signed by the governor.

Finally, the same types of class action lawsuits used to hold tobacco companies accountable for the negative health effects of their products are being considered against food and beverage companies that produce products perceived as unhealthy. In a nutshell, members of the legal community are looking for ways in which the food and beverage industry may be held responsible for the rise in the obesity rate over the past few decades.

Yet such efforts are wrongheaded, because they underestimate the complexity of obesity. Cultural, economic, educational, social, psychological and physical factors all play a role, and trying to frighten consumers or sue food companies will do nothing to address what is a true public health crisis.

 The more emphasis put on efforts to compare food to the negative health effects of tobacco, the further societies get away from addressing obesity. There are no simple solutions, and those that keep trying to find a quick fix are doing more harm than good.

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