Is Processed Food Really Any Different From Tobacco?

Both tobacco and processed foods share many qualities. Whether it is nicotine or a formulated glob of processed sugar, fat, and salt—cravings, dependency and addictive and habit-forming behavior can result—perpetuating the desire for more and more of the product.  There are 46 million smokers in the USA and surveys show that 70% desire to quit, 40% per year try to quit, and 2.5% actually succeed.

Clearly, tobacco is very bad for our health, with 400,000 Americans succumbing to smoking related diseases each year, and there is no need to dwell on this subject.  But at one time we simply were ignorant about the ill effects of tobacco—now we are educated and informed—so lack of knowledge is no longer a valid excuse for smoking.  Nowadays, those who choose to smoke make a conscious choice of ignoring available information about the harms of tobacco as opposed to the ignorance of years ago.

I contend that the consumption of unhealthy processed foods is no less toxic and harmful to our health than tobacco is.  Of course it is difficult to quantify—I do not know the relative harm of a Hostess Twinkie as compared to a few cigarettes—but with the knowledge that we now have, it is crystal clear that both habits are pernicious to our good health.

It took many years to come to an understanding of the incredible health risks due to tobacco and how far tobacco companies went to wantonly inflict these hazards upon us.  In response to a Reader’s Digest 1952 article entitled “Cancer by the Carton” which revealed the dangers of smoking, big tobacco started mass-marketing filtered cigarettes and low-tar formulations that promised a “healthier” smoking experience.  In 1964, it was concluded that cigarette smoking was causally related to lung cancer in men on the basis of carcinogens including cadmium, DDT, and arsenic. In 1965, Congress passed the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act mandating the surgeon general’s warnings on all cigarette packages. In 1971, all broadcast advertising for tobacco was banned and in 1990 smoking was banned on all interstate buses and all domestic airline flights lasting six hours or less.

In 2006, a federal judge named Gladys Kessler ordered strict new limitations on tobacco marketing, punishing the cigarette manufacturing companies for their disingenuous behavior and forcing them to stop labeling cigarettes with deceptive descriptors including “low tar,” “light,” or “natural.”  The tobacco industry was demonstrated to have “marketed their lethal product with zeal, with deception, with a single-minded focus on their financial success and without regard for the human tragedy or social costs that success exacted.”  Judge Kessler concluded that “cigarette makers profit from selling a highly addictive product that causes diseases leading to a staggering number of deaths per year, an immeasurable amount of human suffering and economic loss, and a profound burden on our national health care system.”

The industrial food complex (IFC)—a small group of multi-national corporations that are responsible for most of our foods—are similar to big tobacco in their size, power, and resources—commanding the whole food system from seed to supermarket.  It is becoming increasingly evident that the IFC controls the farming and meat industries, which are no longer so much farms and ranches as they are manufacturing plants.   Much of our food comes from huge assembly line factories where, to put it bluntly, both animals and workers are treated very poorly without the respect, dignity and common decency that they are owed.  The IFC conducts their business with opaqueness and does not care for us to know the truth about what we are consuming and the means by which we have come to consume it, very similar to the attitude of Big Tobacco towards cigarettes.   The IFC’s goal is to make produce or livestock bigger, fatter, cheaper and brought to market faster—all with the intent of increasing their bottom line—with significant collateral costs to us in terms of damage to our ecosystem and health-related problems including bacterial contamination of our food and the increasing prevalence of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.

The IFC also share with the cigarette manufacturing companies a propensity for disingenuous and deceptive behaviors.  Many processed products that are perilous to our health are neatly packaged and boxed with marketing claims that can be described as sly-manipulative-spun-hyped subterfuge.  There is often a sleight of hand applied to the number or the size of servings delineated on the package, with a realistic-sized serving being much larger and higher in calories than stated.    Another example is the ingredient listing on the package, ingredients being listed in descending order of predominance.  Many breakfast cereals are predominantly sugar, but if sugar were listed as the primary ingredient, many consumers would choose to leave the product on the supermarket shelf.  So the IFC’s magic trick of deception is to use multiple sweeteners and list them separately—sugar, brown sugar, high fructose corn syrup, corn sweetener, molasses, and honey are the typical menu of sweeteners.  By using more than one sweetener, they drop down the order list and are seemingly less predominant components.   Like Big Tobacco, Big Food also uses many deceptive descriptors including: “fortified”, “lite”, “multigrain”, “all natural” and “organic”—they sound great for our health, but really are just words without substance.  The term “all-natural” resonates nicely but is meaningless—many things are all natural including E. coli O157:H7 and melanoma.   “Multigrain” conjures up images of a mélange of farm-fresh healthy grains, but in reality translates to made from more than one grain, all of which may be highly processed.  “Organic” is a powerful term that evokes thoughts of food grown without the use of chemical fertilizers, growth hormones, antibiotics, or pesticides.  However, understand, for example, that when I walk my English Springer spaniel to do his “business”, he leaves a large, steaming pile of organic material on the ground!

It is now common knowledge that tobacco is deleterious to our health and we are slowly coming to an understanding that processed foods are equally harmful.  However, it took years for public attitudes to change and for a grass roots understanding and acceptance of tobacco as a malignant addiction to solidify—to wit, when the surgeon general’s warning first proclaimed that smoking was bad for your health in 1964, 42% of the adult population smoked, and now in 2009, about 20% does so.   Ultimately, anti-tobacco forces and government assailed smoking from a number of different angles—prohibiting smoking in public venues and restaurants, higher taxes, banning commercials and mandating warning labels on packs—cumulatively acting to gradually erode the smoking base.  In a similar vein, it will likely take some time for the public to recognize and accept that processed foods are harmful to our health and existence.  Mark my words—there will come a day when processed foods will be understood to be as harmful as tobacco—it may take years for this transformation to occur, but it will ultimately come to fruition when the coalition of government and community advocacy groups join ranks to change the food culture of our society.

In 2003, the Big Tobacco Company formerly known as Philip Morris changed its name to Altria in order to rid itself of the “scarlet letter” tainting its public image that was so tarnished because of its cigarette business.  Same company—new name—how calculating and disingenuous can you get?    Will the Big Food Industry companies be following suit?  What game playing and charades!

The tobacco industry has been shown to be irresponsible and just recently—finally—the government rose to the occasion with sweeping new legislation to control it.   Half a century after the surgeon general first warned about the deleterious health effects of tobacco, and despite the opposition of the omnipotent tobacco lobby, 2009 ushered in the passage of landmark new laws that gave the FDA new and comprehensive powers to oversee and regulate tobacco.  The government first required warning labels to be printed on cigarette packages in 1965 and updated them in 1984.   Now, regulators will control the amount of addictive nicotine in each cigarette and how cigarettes are packaged, marketed and promoted.   Larger and more graphic warnings of the perils of smoking will be on every pack of cigarettes.  Now banned are fruit flavored cigarettes and using, for advertising purposes, cartoon characters that are attractive to youngsters (like Joe Camel)—restrictions aimed at preventing children from picking up this horrendous habit.

I foresee the day when—like the tobacco industry—the  industrial food complex will be censured and intensely regulated for zealous and deceptive marketing practices and for their primary focus on their own prosperity with patent disregard to the human tragedy and social costs resultant from that prosperity. We are in dire need of legislation capable of preventing children from starting down the misdirected path that can lead to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and premature death.  Hopefully happening sooner rather than later, these regulations and restrictions directed at the industrial food complex will force transparency; big and obvious warning labels instead of enticing catchwords; control of the amount of high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, enriched wheat flour, and the many other harmful component ingredients; and regulation of packaging, marketing and promotion.   I anxiously await the time when the public understands that highly processed foods—in similar fashion to tobacco—can be extremely addicting and contribute insidiously to diseases leading to an astonishing number of deaths, human suffering, economic loss and a significant burden on our health care system.

I look forward to the day when unhealthy foods bear the surgeon general’s warning.  There are currently four such warning on cigarettes that are rotated from pack to pack: Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema And May Complicate Pregnancy; Quitting Smoking Now Greatly Reduces Serious Risks to Your Health; Smoking By Pregnant Women May Result in Fetal Injury, Premature Birth, And Low Birth Weight; Cigarette Smoke Contains Carbon Monoxide.  Perhaps the warning label will read something like: Consumption of processed foods may contribute to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and death; or alternatively, Quitting consumption of processed foods now greatly reduces serious risks to your health.  In my opinion, that day cannot arrive soon enough.

This is just a taste of what you will find in Promiscuous Eating: Understanding and Ending Our Self-Destructive Relationship with Food. The website for the book is:

It provides information on the book, a trailer, excerpts, ordering instructions, as well as links to a wealth of excellent resources on healthy living.  Promiscuous Eating is also available in e-book format on Amazon Kindle.

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