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Bill Roth headshot

Unhealthy Big Food: The New Big Tobacco?

By Bill Roth

Tying the scale of Big Food’s health impacts to those of cigarettes is based on an analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of our national weight gain. Our national weight crisis is a health epidemic that is literally killing us: 300,000 Americans will die this year from obesity. This is comparable to the death rate tied to smoking cigarettes.

Fingers of blame can be pointed at all of us for sitting too much and exercising too little. But what we eat is the foundation of our weight crisis. We are being sold, and we are buying, the equivalent of obesity cigarettes. Big Food (and sodas) are harming our health, threatening our children’s future and driving us toward medical cost bankruptcy.

The obvious ideal solution is for the Big Food industry to immediately redesign their products around human health. Instead, Big Food is pursuing an incremental “do less harm” strategy that attempts to grow sales while promising improvements like the removal of artificial coloring or flavors. A classic example is how Wendy’s worked to figure out how to include blueberries in a salad while aggressively promoting their Baconator Hamburger. This raises the question of whether Big Food’s lack of meaningful actions (measured by improved human health) will force America to regulate Big Food like it does the cigarette industry?

Historical precedence

We have been here before. One example is the national health crisis tied to lead in gasoline and paints. We passed legislation and rules to remove lead from gasoline and paint to protect our children’s health.

We addressed the auto industry’s resistance to adopting increased safety features by mandating the use of seat belts and air bags. The result has been a meaningful reduction in vehicle accident deaths even as we annually drive millions more miles. Today’s automobile manufacturers promote their vehicle safety to win customers and grow sales.

Most telling in terms of Big Food, our country took steps to curtail the sale of cigarettes. Today we are at record lows in terms of Americans smoking.

A question that should be raised is whether government action is now required if the Big Food industry continues down the path of incremental changes that fail to meaningfully help Americans to lose weight.

Three ways to protect ourselves from unhealthy Big Food

Regulation of the cigarette industry provides a template for how to curtail unhealthy Big Food sales to save America from the cost and pain of its weight crisis. The three key steps are:

  1. Hazardous product labels. What mother would allow their children free access to the restaurant soda machine if the oversized cup had a huge stop sign on it with the words, “Consuming soda is known to make children and adults fat, obese and diabetic.” How likely would you be to buy a bag of chips if it had a stop sign on it with the words “This product is high in fat and salt that is known to cause weigh gain, obesity, diabetes and heart disease.” This type of labeling worked to stop cigarettes from being a “cool’ thing to buy. Cigarette package health labels positioned this product as a dumb decision open to peer ridicule. This type of stop-sign food labeling is working in Chile to curtail their country’s obesity crisis.

  2. Outlaw unhealthy food advertising. Blocking the cigarette industry from mass advertising curtailed their sales. Imagine no more ads for fat filled and salt laden hamburgers served with a sugar laced bun. No more ads for Coke or Diet Coke that health research links to weight gain, obesity and diabetes. No more unhealthy food ads targeting our kids. Getting Big Food out of TV, social media, radio and print advertising would be a huge step in reducing consumer impulse buying of unhealthy Big Food.

  3. Tax unhealthy food. Cigarettes sales fell when they were taxed for the purpose of making them less affordable. Big Food's price promotions are a key reason why people buy unhealthy food. One key reason why unhealthy Big Food is cheap to buy is because our national weight crisis is not reflected in its price. What if the tens of billions of dollars we pay for our weight crisis were collected not through our medical premiums or Medicare payroll taxes? What if our weight crisis costs were collected through a tax on unhealthy Big Food? Big Food would not look so cheap to consumers. Their sales would fall. And Big Food would have a huge economic incentive to offer healthy food that is price competitive.

Big Food please act now

The very outline of a regulatory path for curtailing Big Food sales is of their own making. The ideal solution is for them to act, now! No more lobbying to shape government food label rules to maximize sales at the expense of human health. No more incremental steps toward doing less harm. It is time for Big Food to use its huge talent pool and financial scale to redesign America’s food supply around human health while still supplying taste, price competitiveness and convenience.

Or the industry can continue its course and face a future where their products are increasingly compared to cigarettes and consumers/voters demand their regulation.

Image credit: Pexels

Bill Roth headshot

Bill Roth is a cleantech business pioneer having led teams that developed the first hydrogen fueled Prius and a utility scale, non-thermal solar power plant. Using his CEO and senior officer experiences, Roth has coached hundreds of CEOs and business owners on how to develop and implement projects that win customers and cut costs while reducing environmental impacts. As a professional economist, Roth has written numerous books including his best selling The Secret Green Sauce (available on Amazon) that profiles proven sustainable best practices in pricing, marketing and operations. His most recent book, The Boomer Generation Diet (available on Amazon) profiles his humorous personal story on how he used sustainable best practices to lose 40 pounds and still enjoy Happy Hour!

Read more stories by Bill Roth