by Wayne Persky
This article is not so much about MC, as it is about the convoluted way in which the medical community views the food manufacturing industry. As patients, and consumers, we're caught up in the middle of all this confusion.
Regulating the safety of food products on the shelves of grocery stores in the U.S. is the responsibility of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In theory at least, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) overseas the ethical performance of food manufacturing companies, and protects consumers from illegal business practices. Should we, as consumers, even be concerned about the ethics of food companies, as long as their products are FDA and FTC approved? Apparently, according to medical researchers, the correct answer is, "Yes". But a bigger question here is, "Why are medical researchers attempting to critique corporate ethics, when they should be spending their time and money conducting studies on health problems?" As we shall see, this issue is much more complex than it appears to be at first glance. Case in point:
An article recently published in the Washington Post
pointed out that a newly published research study found that the tobacco companies are responsible for selectively distributing addictive foods into the U.S. food system, using unscrupulous advertising methods, similar to the way they promoted cigarettes in previous decades (O’Connor, 2023, September 19).1 The actual article, published in Addiction, the Journal of the Society for the Study of Addiction, concluded that the tobacco companies acquired leading food companies (in other words, food companies that were successfully producing popular products), and used these companies to distribute what the researchers referred to as "hyper- palatable foods" between the years of 1980 and 2001, in order to "hook" consumers on processed foods (Fazzino, Jun, Chollet-Hilton, and Bjorlie, 2023).2
But maybe there's more to this story than meets the eye.
Although most articles regarding this suddenly popular research topic paint the tobacco industry as though it's players were composed of coldhearted, unscrupulous, conniving corporations, dead set on undermining the health of Americans in any way they can, closer scrutiny shows that, as is often the case, there's another side to the story.
For thousands of years, tobacco was a prized commodity, worldwide.
And the manufacturing companies that were founded to produce tobacco products certainly weren't originally formed for the specific purpose of undermining, and destroying the health of American citizens. Prior to the 20th century, smoking tobacco was a cherished part of life, for many adults, both male and female. It was much more popular, and not nearly as dangerous, as the black market drugs that are so popular today (despite the fact that those drugs are illegal).
To most Native American Indian tribes, the sacred pipe, a.k.a. peace pipe, or Calumet, was held in high esteem, and smoking tobacco, often mixed with bark or other herbs, was a revered (honorable), and profound occasion. The history of tobacco use goes way back. Scientists have found traces of
nicotine in clay pipes that dated back to at least 3500 years ago.
Washington Duke founded W. Duke, Sons & Co. as a tobacco manufacturer in 1865.
With the help of his sons James and Benjamin, the company grew and was merged with a number of other tobacco companies in 1890 to form the American Tobacco Company, which at the time, was the biggest tobacco company in the world, and James became its president. The American tobacco Company was one of the original 12 members of the Dow Jones Industrial Averages in 1896.
But their advertising techniques, and their aggressive competitiveness (which, incidentally, are prized corporate assets) were so successful, that in 1911, the U.S. Supreme Court found the American tobacco company in violation of the Sherman antitrust act of 1890, and so the conglomerate was broken up into four smaller companies, namely R.J. Reynolds, Lorillard, Liggett & Myers, and American tobacco.
Incidentally, note that history shows that James Buchanan Duke became one of the greatest philanthropists of the Carolinas, after building a massive fortune in tobacco, followed by another fortune derived from hydroelectric generation. His greatest claim to fame is probably considered to be his role as the patron of Duke University.
But to get back to our discussion, during the latter part of the 20th century, around 1960, tobacco companies began to invest in food manufacturing companies, as a way to put their profits to use, and diversify their business.
How do food companies become successful?
The most common way for food companies to become successful is by producing foods that appeal to most consumers' taste. Certain ingredients, and flavors, appeal to more consumers than others, so naturally the products that use the most appealing ingredients that give the best taste experience, when combined, become more popular than those that don't taste as appealing. That's certainly not rocket science, but it allows those products to easily gain popularity, and their manufacturers to gain profits. And those profits generate revenue to spend on advertising campaigns, in order to increase sales.
So Selecting Food Companies to Purchase Is Almost a No-Brainer.
Naturally, the tobacco companies sought to buy successful companies that produced popular foods.
And there's certainly nothing wrong with that in the corporate world — it's simply good business. So, are any of the accusatory claims made in that research study article mentioned above, even relevant? During the years covered by that study (1980–2001) big tobacco companies were Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, American Tobacco Company, and Brown and Williamson, all of which were corporations.
Although ideally, one would hope that corporations would hold themselves to the highest standards, and the most ethical methods of production possible, out in the real world, that rarely happens. True, corporate success depends on the ability to generate large amounts of revenue through the sales of products, but ultimately, successful corporations are well aware that their primary duty is to keep their stockholders satisfied. And although it may seem irresponsible, and in some cases even criminal, most stockholders frankly don't give a hoot about ethics. They demand performance in the form of regular dividends, and increasing stock prices. This is true for all corporations.
Because of their stockholder pressure to perform,
the most successful corporations typically exploit the markets in any legal way they can, in order to maximize their performance. In other words, they try to maximize their profits while staying out of legal trouble. The most successful tobacco companies were able to get their products placed in movies, and on television. And like most corporations, they even target ads at younger people, if they feel there's market potential in that age group. Are there any successful cereal manufacturing corporations in America, for example, that haven't targeted younger age groups, not only with their advertising, but their product design, as well?
And when tobacco companies have acquired food manufacturing companies, as most corporations would do, they acquired the most successful companies they could find, and afford. And due to their competitiveness, and their profit levels, they were in a good position to be able to afford the companies that they chose to acquire.
How is food addictiveness ranked?
The University of Michigan actually did the work and developed a table that ranks the addictiveness of many foods, and in 2015, the study was published in the Journal PloS One (Schulte, Avena, and Gearhardt, 2015).3 The table ranked 35 foods, and the top 15, for example, were chocolate, ice cream, French fries, pizza, cookie, chips, cake, buttered popcorn, cheeseburger, muffin, breakfast cereal, gummy candy, fried chicken, non-diet soda, and plain rolls. Are any of the companies producing these products owned by tobacco companies? I didn't check all of them, but starting at the top, with the most addictive food,
1. The top chocolate producers in the U.S., based on revenue, are Mars Inc., Hershey Co., and the Ferrero group. Mars is entirely owned by the Mars family. Hershey Trust Company is the minority order of Hershey Company, but it owns the majority of the voting stock. The Ferrero group is a family run business in Italy.
2. The top ice cream producer in America is Ben & Jerry's, and the company is owned by Unilever
3. Wendy's is said to have the most popular French fries, and the fast food restaurant chain is owned by Institutional shareholders and individual investors.
4. Domino's pizza sells the most pizzas in the U.S., and it's owned by Domino's Pizza, Inc.
5. The top cookie brand in the U.S. is Oreo, originally produced by Nabisco, and currently owned by Mondelez International.
Obviously, the companies that produce the largest amount of the five most addictive foods in the U.S. are not owned by any tobacco companies. In view of that fact one has to wonder about the motives of the researchers who are responsible for the claims made in the research study described above.
Why were the tobacco companies singled out as a target?
The data obviously don't support the researcher's claims. Could that choice be biased simply because of the fact that tobacco companies in general have fallen out of grace with the American public, since
cigarettes and other tobacco products have been found to be so harmful for long-term health? Did the researchers cherry pick the data? Were their research methods completely confounded? How on earth were they able to justify the claims they made?
Addictive food products are a universal food company problem.
The problem obviously isn't just unique to the food companies that the tobacco companies have acquired. Although the tobacco companies may have acquired food manufacturers that produce some of the most addictive food products, they obviously haven't acquired any of the companies that produce the top five most addictive foods in the U.S. So how are the researchers justified in claiming that the companies selling the most addictive foods are owned by tobacco companies?
Remember when doctors were featured in cigarette ads?
Have the researchers forgotten that from the 1930s to the 1950s, doctors were often featured in cigarette ads promoting the health benefits of smoking cigarettes (Morgan, 2014, July, 27).4 Even Santa Claus, and many, many other celebrities appeared in cigarette ads over the decades. But of course, after the Surgeon General's 1964 report on smoking and health, cigarette smoking (and the use of tobacco in general) quickly fell out of favor.
32 years later, California legalized the medical use of marijuana.
Since then, 40 states and the District of Columbia have joined California, and the recreational use of marijuana has been approved in 23 states, three U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia.
But is smoking marijuana safer than smoking tobacco?
In a survey-based study comparing the perceived relative risks of smoking cannabis or tobacco, and inhaling secondhand smoke from either cannabis or tobacco, researchers compared the survey results of the opinions of 5035 middle-aged adults, between the years of 2017 and 2021. During those years, the percentage of respondents who thought smoking cannabis was safer, changed from 36.7% in 2017, to 44.3% in 2021 (Anderson, 2023, September 07).5 And those who thought inhaling secondhand cannabis smoke was safer, increased from 35.1% to 40.2% (from 2017 to 2021).
Is the legalization of the use of marijuana influencing public attitudes?
As additional states pass laws allowing the legal use of marijuana, is that persuading more people to believe that smoking marijuana is safe? Or do they simply want to believe that it's safer, because they crave to be able to legally smoke marijuana? Unfortunately, as pointed out in an online CNN article, there is no reason to believe that smoking marijuana is any safer than smoking tobacco (LaMotte, 2023, August 14).6 The combustion of either marijuana or tobacco releases many toxic chemicals that are harmful to the lungs. And smoking marijuana certainly has not become safer than smoking tobacco, simply because some states have legalized the option.
It's certainly no secret that the food products with the most taste appeal, are typically those that are unhealthy for consumers. In fact, isn't there an old saying that goes something like, "Anything that tastes good couldn't possibly be good for us." While accusations such as those made by the research article discussed here certainly don't help to enhance anyone's perception of the tobacco companies, in all fairness, even if the researchers were actually correct in stating that the tobacco companies sought to buy food companies that produced the most addictive foods available, does anyone doubt that if the tobacco companies had not bought these companies, the food products would still be mass-produced, and just as popular, anyway? Surely, the products would not just disappear into obscurity, simply because all of American industry other than the tobacco companies have such high ethical standards that they wouldn't consider manufacturing any food product that might be considered unhealthful, despite the fact that consumers were clamoring for it.
Regarding the Washington Post article, while the article attempted to shift the focus of the research to highlight the “unscrupulous” advertising techniques typically used by the tobacco companies, the original research article did not focus on the advertising angle. It focused on an attempt to associate the tobacco companies with the popularity of the most addictive foods sold in the U.S. Obviously, advertising policies are a separate (although related) issue from the production of unhealthy foods, making that aspect irrelevant to the focus of the study.
Note that the purpose of this article is not intended to paint the tobacco companies as honorable, dishonorable, or anything else. It's merely to point out that hindsight is 2020, and history has revealed many, many situations where poor decisions have been made during the evolution of our current industrial complex, our government, our healthcare system, and our society, in general.
But speaking of ethics, what about the ethics of the medical community?
As most of us are well aware, the medical community often has an agenda that it feels obligated to promote, whether it's based on solid science, or shallow evidence. And the research study discussed by this article is a good example of that. Another good example can be found in a research article that was published very recently, regarding a study sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) regarding all risk mortality of patients who suffer from depression. The study, as described in a Medical Xpress article, was based on data from 23,694 adults during the years 2005 to 2018 (Jackson, 2023, October 11).7
In that study, the researchers determined that certain lifestyle factors had the greatest influence on all cause mortality risk associated with depression. They found that the most important factors for reducing all cause mortality risk associated with depression appear to be wealth, smoking, and exercise.
Surprisingly, smoking caused the greatest risk reduction,
followed closely by exercise. Does anyone believe that the CDC will promote smoking as a way to reduce all cause mortality risk associated with depression? And why hasn't the medical community stepped up to provide any evidence that the use of cannabis is so much safer than the use of tobacco, that its use is justified, whether for medical purposes or recreational use. Doesn't such evidence exist? If it doesn't, then why haven't they objected to the widening use of marijuana, in view of their continuing vigorous campaign against tobacco smoking? As pointed out earlier in this article, there's more to this issue than meets the eye. Corporate ethics is a complex issue, and so are health problems. Nothing is all good, nor is anything all bad. Everything has to be judged by its own merits.
1. O’Connor, A. (2023, September 19). Many of today’s unhealthy foods were brought to you by Big Tobacco. Washington Post, retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/wellness/2023/09/19/addiction-foods-hyperpalatable-tobacco/
2. Fazzino, T. L., Jun, D., Chollet-Hilton, L., and Bjorlie, K. (2023). US tobacco companies selectively disseminated hyper-palatable foods into the US food system: Empirical evidence and current implications. Addiction, retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/add.16332
3. Schulte, E. M., Avena, N. M., and Gearhardt, A. N. (2015). Which foods may be addictive? The roles of processing, fat content, and glycemic load. PLoS One, 10(2), e0117959. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4334652/
4. Morgan, D. (2014, July, 27). Outrageous vintage cigarette ads. CBS News, Retrieved from https://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/outrageous-vintage-cigarette-ads/
5. Anderson, P. (2023, September 07). Growing Public Perception That Cannabis Is Safer Than Tobacco. Medscape, Retrieved from https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/996204?ecd=mkm_ret_231022_mscpmrk_pcp_cannabis_etid5976252&uac=95382HN&impID=5976252
6. LaMotte, S. (2023, August 14). Many Americans wrongly believe exposure to marijuana smoke is safer than tobacco, study finds. CNN, Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2023/08/14/health/marijuana-smoke-wellness/index.html
7. Jackson, J. (2023, October 11). CDC study on depression and mortality finds wealth, smoking, and exercise reduce risk of death. Medical Xpress, Retrieved from https://medicalxpress.com/news/2023-10-cdc-depression-mortality-wealth-death.html?utm_source=nwletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=daily-nwletter