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The similarities between unhealthy food and tobacco go beyond the health effects. When it comes to corporate responsibility, executives at some of the nation's largest food and beverage companies seem to have learned a lot from their counterparts at Big Tobacco in aggressively promoting consumption of unhealthy foods and, in the same breath, blaming the consumer.
Big Food and Big Tobacco share some common bloodlines. It wasn't very long ago that some of these companies were one and the same. RJR Nabisco, for instance, oncesimultaneously contained the companies that made Camel cigarettes and Chips Ahoy! cookies. Until the mid-2000s, the companies that manufacture Marlboro and Virginia Slims cigarettes were part of the same conglomerate, Philip Morris (now Altria), which manufactured Kraft Macaroni & Cheese and Kool Aid. Those companies have since split their tobacco businesses from their food businesses, but heavy-handed product marketing may be ingrained in the companies' DNA.
Like Big Tobacco, Big Food goes to great lengths to muddy the waters and obscure the connections between soda and disease. "The products we make are not injurious to health," is how the Tobacco Industry Research Committee put it in a 1954 advertisement. In 2012 the American Beverage Association opined, "Sugar-sweetened beverages are not driving obesity." Coca-Cola executive Katie Bayne told this whopper to USA Today: "There is no scientific evidence that connects sugary beverages to obesity."
Joe Camel, the cartoon animal used to attract children to cigarettes, was retired in 1997, under pressure from state attorneys general. A master settlement agreement between the AGs and the tobacco industry eliminated much of that industry's advertising to children, and even disbanded the Tobacco Institute, an aggressive industry lobbying force. But the food industry still uses cartoon characters to market disease-causing products to children, and food industry trade groups still devote millions to block progress and defend the status quo.
Big Tobacco and Big Food are now separate industries, but the playbook is much the same. How the game ends is up to us.