Is it fair to Portray Big Food as the New Big Tobacco?

The Lempert Report
February 19, 2019

The Lancet Commission on Obesity blames a growth-focused sector for a food system that stuffs the global populations on empty calories while misusing land, energy and other resources.

Without naming companies, the report calls for restricting the industry from policy-related discussions.

The report, which took 3 years to complete, echoed past indictments of sectors such as tobacco, alcohol, energy and firearms for using political clout to shape laws, policy and health guidelines. The 43-member panel pointed to food companies’ lobbying strength as a reason for nutrition recommendations that sometimes have run counter to scientific evidence. One major flaw that we see in the committee was they did not include one farmer or rancher on the panel.

“Although food clearly differs from tobacco because it is a necessity to support human life, unhealthy food and beverages are not,” William Dietz, a professor at George Washington University and one of the authors, said in a statement. “The similarities with Big Tobacco lie in the damage they induce and the behaviors of the corporations that profit from them.”

The global rate of obesity has almost tripled in the last four decades, with more than a third of the world’s adults now in a weight range that increases risks of heart disease, cancer and other disorders, according to the World Health Organization. 

Dietz argues that a middle ground exists and calls for alternative business models for the 21st century -- combining sustainability and profits. Food and beverage giants have already been shifting toward healthier products and have been cutting fat and sodium levels. Some firms have also committed to reducing plastic packaging and carbon emissions.

The group called for a treaty that would exclude the food and beverage industry from policy development, similar to the WHO’s global conventions on tobacco. And because food production is one of the largest contributors to climate change, $5 trillion in U.S. government subsidies that currently flow toward big agriculture companies and fossil fuels should be directed to sustainable farming and transport instead, according to the report.