The Perils of Ignoring History

Big Tobacco Played Dirty and Millions Died: How Similar is Big Food?

This article examines the history of the tobacco industry and compares it to the food industry. It provides an overview of the steps that the tobacco industry took to protect its market at the expense of public health and discusses the ways in which the food industry has, and has not, followed a similar trajectory.

The authors reviewed historical and empirical evidence of the food and tobacco industries' strategies to influence scientific studies, public opinion, and legal regulation.

Key Findings:

  • The tobacco industry used several approaches to undercut public health, including self-regulatory pledges, government lobbying, denial of the addictive nature of nicotine, criticism of science showing harm from tobacco products, and the creation of products marketed as safer than the original.
  • The food industry differs from the tobacco industry in several important ways, but uses some of the same strategies to respond to concerns about the health consequences of their products.

Lessons learned from the tactics of the tobacco industry may play an important role in responding to the epidemic of obesity.

This article is part of a special issue on obesity in the March 2009 edition of The Milbank Quarterly available free of charge throughout 2009 at Wiley-Blackwell.