New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s attempted ban on the sale of sodas larger than 16 ounces suffered a defeat in court a few weeks ago. But criticism of the industry that has been termed “Big Sugar” or “Big Food” shows no signs of abating. Those critical names are spinoffs from a down-market brand we all remember: Big Tobacco. Public health advocates from the populist food writer Michael Pollan to the lauded obesity researcher Kelly Brownell draw a direct comparison between the tactics of today’s convenience-food conglomerates and the tobacco industry of the twentieth century. Michael Moss’s recent bestseller Salt, Sugar, Fat reads like a journalistic sequel to historian Allan Brandt’s Cigarette Century.
Moss’s book begins with a series of comparisons between cigarette manufacturers and Big Food companies like Kraft and General Mills (both, he notes, now owned by Philip Morris). Moss draws from a series of executive testimonials and previously secret industry documents that detail the familiar tactics the companies used: scientific breakthroughs that exploit our basic biological impulses for consumption, collusion with government regulators, marketing targeted at children—all of which, he concludes, resulted in a growing chronic disease burden. With this common history established, the analogy seems straightforward: cigarette manufacturers are to cancer as food companies are to obesity-related illnesses. But it has a subtext that should interest alcohol and drugs historians as well as regulators: the suggestion that sugary substances aren’t just physiologically harmful—they’re addictive.
Critics like Moss are already alleging that the “Food Giants Hooked Us.” While I’m not sure I buy the argument, I can see how the threat of “addictive potential” might be politically useful for activists seeking to establish new regulations to curb the consumption of processed food and drinks.