Abolish the Food Industry

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?


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?

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."

Second, he doesn't want to ban smoking. The language of abolition -- not prohibition -- is well chosen. Proctor doesn't yearn for the criminalization of smokers, nor does he foresee the end of cigarettes or tobacco. He's simply arguing that the industry that profits from it oughtn't to exist in a society that has a minimum concern with public health. If you want to smoke, you're free to grow and cure your own tobacco, he suggests.

The analogy of tobacco with food isn't perfect, clearly. People who eat Twinkies often want to eat Twinkies, and we all need to eat. But it's increasingly common to see the medical literature push forward an understanding of sugar addiction and it's also true that our food choices are far from free, in no small part because of the commercial and cultural power of the food industry. Weaned as most of us are on Big Food's free speech, we ought to be suspicious of our instincts when it comes to food.

This week's Nature article doesn't argue for the abolition of Big Food, but indicts the industry nonetheless: "Sugar is cheap, sugar tastes good, and sugar sells, so companies have little incentive to change." Limiting the power of these corporations to sell their products -- just as we limit alcohol and tobacco companies -- ought to be widely agreed, and the battle among health professionals in the years to come will see the transformation of this proposition into an axiom.

The food industry tastes its own blood in the water, and is responding aggressively to the nicks and cuts from public health professionals. It's unwise to underestimate the chutzpah of an industry that spread trans fats across the Western diet in the 20th century, and made a marketing pitch of their removal in the 21st. So the industry has adopted a strategy that counters a pound of sugar with an ounce of nutrition.

Derek Yach, senior vice president of Global Health and Agriculture Policy at PepsiCo, offers Sun Chips as a food that "would do very well on almost every nutrition criteria." The problem is that while they're moderately better than other chips, they're still chips, and part of a business whose main profit derives from food high in salt, fat, and sugar. More important, Sun Chips are still a snack food -- the growth of which, some argue, is the main engine for expanding American waistlines.

The breadth of products controlled by the food industry -- amply toxic and less so -- is itself a symptom of a deeper problem that has public health symptoms, but a political economic cause. The food industry is an oligopoly that has transformed not only what we eat but how we eat it, and what we think of food. Which is why the logic of Proctor's argument as it could apply to the food industry waits in the wings -- for now. It's hard to entertain the abolition of the food industry, because it's difficult to imagine ourselves in a world without PepsiCo, Nestlé, Kraft (formerly part of Philip Morris), and friends, and their product lines.

Few have lived in a world in which a handful of corporations don't run the food system. The food industry has made our world theirs. Instant meals and ready calories are as much a part of the fabric of late capitalist life as the culture in which they're acceptable. Excising corporations from an economy that has come to depend on their products addresses the problem of added toxins in food. But it does little to change the circumstance that renders those foods a caloric raft for the poor, nor does it address deeper injustices within the food system spawned by corporate power.

But a better food system needn't be limited to one where food giants behave a little better because they are taxed and hushed a little. Lustig and colleagues argue for limits to corporate power in food because, by adding sugar to almost everything they make, they make us less free as consumers. Extending Proctor's argument to those very corporate powers invites us to imagine what a world without Big Food might look like -- and dream ourselves freer still.

Image: Ruslan Nabiyev/Shutterstock.