3 Reasons to Mind the Gap between Smoking and Junk Food

Leaping to apply anti-smoking strategies to junk food is sorely tempting. When CVS declared that “cigarettes and tobacco products have no place in a setting where health care is delivered,” experts and cartoonists alike wondered aloud, “What about junk food?”

Now comes the news that lawyers are pitching litigation against the food industry to make them pay for the health costs of obesity. The target for the pitch is 16 state attorneys general — a group that won large settlements in the now famous class action lawsuit against the tobacco industry.

As tempting as this leap from tobacco to food policy might be, it’s best to look before we leap. Here are three key reasons for caution.

  1. Smoking is non-essential. People can live complete, happy lives without cigarettes, but not food. This obvious but important difference of food sometimes draws a retort along the lines of “yes, but [fill in the blank with a hated junk food] isn’t essential.” Perhaps not, but try getting a diverse group of people to agree on a food — even a junk food — that should be regulated or taxed out of existence.
  2. Cigarettes are inherently dangerous. A favorite cliché of tobacco activists is that cigarettes are the only products that kill their users when used as intended. The same is not true for food. Even vilified junk foods are consumed in moderation by plenty of people without ill effects.
  3. Junk food is a moving target. Remember the 1980s, when every good mother was pushing apple juice to her children? Less fussy mothers were dispensing juice boxes with even more sugar. Have you noticed how yogurt — with its healthy halo — has started appearing in forms that have more than 40 grams of sugar in a serving? Today’s healthy choices can easily morph into tomorrow’s junk food. Healthy nutrition is a function of both the food and how it’s served and consumed.

These cautions are intended to inform our thinking, not deter from the search for solutions. If action by the attorneys general can lead to reforms of the food supply — great. CVS could get even more great publicity if they moved to stop selling so much junk food and start selling a healthier assortment.

But long-term outcomes will be unique to the challenges of nutrition and obesity. And unlike tobacco, at least some of the food industry will have to be part of the solutions that emerge. Don’t expect a simple replay of the tobacco script.

Click here and here to read more about the CVS decision to stop selling cigarettes and here to read more about the proposed litigation against the food industry.

Mind the Gap, photograph © Pawel Loj / flickr

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