Imagine, in 2015, a high school football coach smoking a cigarette along the sidelines during practice, an elementary school teacher blowing smoke out the classroom window while students take a test, or a principal approving a fundraiser where eighth graders sell packs of cigarettes to friends and family to pay for band uniforms.
Nowadays, those activities are unthinkable, but it wasn’t always that way. It wasn’t so long ago that cigarettes were ubiquitous and their consumption around children unrestricted.
So what happened? How is it that a behavior that was once unquestioned is now unacceptable?
The answer is simple, but executing it was not. It took years of work by medical researchers, concerned citizens, community leaders, public health officials, and courageous policymakers, gradually amassing victories, small and large, and overcoming endless industry opposition over several decades.
They took the fight to schools, hospitals, city halls, state capitals, and Washington. They challenged tobacco advertising on TV and billboards. They succeeded in securing restrictions on marketing and selling tobacco to minors. They passed taxes, restricted smoking indoors and on airplanes, and brought lawsuits. Big Tobacco fought back and positioned the fights as public health nannies taking away people’s right to smoke.
Living in 2015, it’s easy to take for granted the gradual changes in perception around smoking, but the extraordinary shift has been a landmark health achievement and model for other actions. The new social norms are resulting in huge payoffs: millions of lives saved, billions in health care costs avoided, and countless children protected from a lifetime of debilitating, preventable illnesses.
A similar fight is still underway around unhealthy foods, like soda, fast food, and junky snack foods. The stakes for health and health care costs are as high as for smoking given the unnecessarily high rates of diet-related obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. The battlegrounds are the same: schools, hospitals, public spaces, restaurants, retail stores, marketing.
And once again, the loudest dissenters are the multinational businesses with a financial stake in continuing to aggressively market products despite their health consequences. Executives at many of the nation’s largest food, beverage, and restaurant companies employ tactics similar to their counterparts from Big Tobacco. On the one hand, Big Food denies that their products cause disease and blames the consumer for making bad choices. On the other, they spend billions on advertising, supermarket placement fees, and lobbying, doing everything they can to shove their products in your face and maximize consumption.
Of course, as with any comparison, there are important differences. The addictive qualities of tobacco are uncontested; the science around the addictive properties of food is still emerging. Tobacco is unnecessary for sustaining life; food is a daily necessity.
But the differences between tobacco and food are not enough to render the comparison moot. While it’s unclear the extent to which food is addictive, it’s clear that infants and children exposed to poor diets are less likely to eat healthy diets as adults. Food may be necessary for sustaining life, but junk food does the opposite. Depending on the formulation, foods can foster vitality and health or disability and disease. It’s essential to address the nutritional quality of foods provided through schools; through federal, state, and local food programs; on public property; and promoted to children.
The role of public health: to debate, challenge, and push until norms change and future generations wonder in disbelief how it was that their grandparents allowed candy sales in schools, sales of doughnuts to fund kids’ education, or soda on children’s menus at restaurants.
I have no doubt where this fight is headed. The question is, how long will it take and what role will you play? Will we put up with Big Food PR executives dishing out disingenuous pablum to the public while Big Food’s sales experts and lobbyists use their marketing and political might to continue to make healthy eating like swimming upstream?
Please join the community of concerned citizens, health professionals, and parents banding together to protect our kids and our right to healthy eating. To join, visit CSPInet.org/ActNow.