Abolish the Food Industry

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If public health is a legitimate reason to curb corporations' advertising to kids, why limit bans to cigarettes, booze, and toys in happy meals, and not include, say, all unhealthy food?

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In the fall of 2008, San Francisco polished its progressive credentials by banning something. From October 1, 2008, the sale of cigarettes was prohibited in certain places. You could still buy them in convenience stores, of course, and bodegas, gas stations, and even the occasional bar. But the city thought that perhaps it was a bad idea to allow them to be sold in pharmacies. As the city attorney, Dennis Herrera, put it: "Consumers -- and especially young people -- should reasonably expect pharmacies to serve their health needs, not to enable our leading cause of preventable death."

Pharmacy and tobacco executives were apoplectic. The Walgreens pharmacy chain argued that they needed to be allowed to sell cigarettes so that they might counsel people on how to quit. The tobacco industry was upset too. From the hallowed garden of constitutional law, it argued that the ban was an infringement of its First Amendment rights to free speech. Big Smoke argued that it was being muzzled by an over-reaching government marching down the road to tyranny. The judge who heard the case took a dim view of this logic, pointing out that while advertising is a form of free speech, "selling cigarettes isn't." The ban continues.

The cigarette industry survives, as does its advertising. Cigarette companies' rights to free speech have, however, been curtailed on grounds of public health, and for the health of children above all. Joe Camel isn't familiar to children today, as he was in the 1970s, because most people agree that it's probably a bad idea to have a hip smoking cartoon character to which kids aspire, even if the company behind it swears blind it was just going after the pro-dromedary slice of the adult market.

Alcohol is similarly circumscribed, again with an eye to public health and, again, with a particular concern for young people. But if public health is a legitimate reason to curb corporations' advertising to kids, why limit bans to cigarettes and booze, and not include, say, unhealthy food?

A paper in the latest issue of Nature by Robert Lustig, Laura Schmidt, and Claire Brindis fuels the debate, pointing to the long-term similarities of sugar and alcohol consumption.

The paper's authors freely admit that a little sugar is fine, but "a lot kills -- slowly." They argue that sugar meets the same four generally accepted public health criteria used to regulate alcohol: it is unavoidable, toxic, has the potential for abuse, and has a negative impact on society. Which is why they suggest restrictions on advertising of sugary processed foods, lauding another of San Francisco's bans -- the one that prevents toys being given away with unhealthy fast food meals.

Given the food industry's power, and fears of a nanny state, it's unsurprising that the paper's authors are caught in a flame war.

I side with the American Psychological Association in thinking that advertising to children is unconscionable. Rather than dwell on the First Amendment issue, which strikes me as an easy case to make, I think it's worth addressing a deeper question underlying the San Francisco cigarette-in-pharmacy ban: Why allow an industry that profits from the sale of unhealthy food at all?

It's worth addressing a question underlying the cigarette-in- pharmacy ban: Why allow an industry that profits from the sale of unhealthy food at all?

Returning to tobacco is helpful. Stanford historian Robert Proctor's life work has been to expose the lies of the tobacco industry. In his magisterial new book, Golden Holocaust, he makes the case for the abolition of the industry entirely (interview here). Cigarettes, when used according to manufacturer instructions, will lead to death. So why harbor tobacco's peddlers? (This argument, incidentally, won't come as a surprise to R.J. Reynolds, who subpoenaed the manuscript because Proctor had in the past testified as an expert witness against the industry.)

The history of banning things is admittedly inglorious. The war on drugs, Prohibition, and censorship have few fans. There are two reasons why Proctor's proposals are different. First, most smokers don't want to be smokers. "Only about three percent of people who drink are alcoholic," he says. "If smokers could choose freely, then they would choose not to smoke. Nicotine is not a recreational drug.... It's really fundamentally different."

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Raj Patel is a British-born American writer, activist, and academic. He has worked for the World Bank and WTO and been tear-gassed on four continents protesting against them. He is the author of Stuffed and Starved and The Value of Nothing. More

Raj Patel is a British-born American writer, activist, and academic. He has worked for the World Bank and WTO and been tear-gassed on four continents protesting against them. He is the author of Stuffed and Starved and The Value of Nothing. He’s currently a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Center for African Studies, an Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and a fellow at The Institute for Food and Development Policy, also known as Food First. He is currently an IATP Food and Community Fellow. He has testified about the causes of the global food crisis to the US House Financial Services Committee and is an Advisor to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.
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