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.
Did New York City’s Department of Health frame its case for the soda ban in relation to accepted regulations that we place on other legal, psychoactive substances like alcohol or tobacco products? Like most historians, I went straight to the primary sources—a draft of the proposed regulation, and the presentation offered by NYC’s Health Department. There was not a whiff of Big Tobacco.
First, the documents cite a variety of scientific studies. They attempt to establish that obesity is an epidemic (a contested claim that I’ll table for later), and that increased soda consumption is linked to growing obesity rates in New York City, particularly in low-income neighborhoods and among children.
Then—and this is the part that interests us—the authors place the rising rates in historical context. They depict this context as a cultural problem that the new soda regulation can help counteract.
Portion sizes have ballooned since 1955, the authors argue, when the only soda size available at McDonald’s was 7 ounces. The original Coca Cola bottle was just 6.5 ounces. Despite calls to action from organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Heart Association, and the American Diabetes Association, health department officials argue that the beverage industry has largely failed to voluntarily reduce portion sizes.
Addiction doesn’t enter the picture of the soda-saturated environment that the documents depict. Citing a single study that found “participants who ate soup from self-refilling bowls ate 73% more,” the authors claim that the same dynamic of unwitting consumption “holds true with beverages.” This frames the public health problem as a matter of depth perception, not compulsion; it’s the container, not the sugar content. This scientific example places the focus on how the environment and industrial design influence unconscious behavior, while overlooking the controversial debate about whether sugar-sweetened beverages create craving or override impulse control.
The documents offer the following historical rationale for restricting the size of soda containers: “the health code restricts other commercial products to benefit public health, including bans on lead in paint, and trans fats in foods.” Bloomberg’s trans fat ban is a recent precedent, but public health historians like Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner charted a long trail of documents linking corporate maleficence to a half century of lead-related deaths. More recently, Markowitz and Rosner used the historical example of hard-won lead bans—in which industry successfully stymied regulatory efforts for decades after the lethality of lead was well established—to argue in favor of taking an aggressively precautionary policy approach to combat obesity.
But accidentally ingesting lead is different from downing a 32-ounce Coke, most notably because sugar-sweetened beverages are meant for consumption and engineered to exploit our biological desire for sweetness (or, as food science researchers termed it, our “bliss point.”) Shortly before writing the soda ban proposal, representatives from the health department spoke about reducing sugared beverage consumption and alcohol and tobacco restrictions in a single breath. When community members and stakeholders helped draft the city’s recent public health strategy, three of four priority areas they proposed included curbing alcohol, tobacco, and unhealthful food and beverage consumption. Those psychoactive substances were seemingly de-coupled from soft drinks in the pitch for the new regulation.
Perhaps the health department officials tweaked their examples to better serve historical or legal precedent; with a few important exceptions, public health employees were not leaders in the fight for tobacco control. According to the health department’s own commemorative history, NYC public health leaders initially linked tobacco control strategy to other addictive substances beginning in the 1960s, when Health Commissioner George James established cessation clinics modeled on community-based narcotics and alcoholism treatment. More generally, James’s tobacco control proposals met with vehement opposition and had limited impact. Historians Michael Lerner and James Colgrove have since noted that the city’s pre-Prohibition Blue Laws and recent smoking bans both resulted from grassroots activism rather than the bureaucratic overreach of public health professionals.
James’s attempt to address tobacco consumption using a treatment strategy inspired by the alcohol and drug addiction paradigm didn’t quite catch on. Later activists successfully leveraged the environmental health problem of secondhand smoke to argue in favor of public smoking bans. Colgrove notes that powerful politicians like Mayor Ed Koch were eventually swayed by the argument that smoking bans protected blameless, non-smoking bystanders.
Unlike this winning case for public smoking laws, which relied on a distinction between smokers (addicted or not) and non-smokers, the rhetorical strategy of the health department’s recent pitch for soft drink size restrictions suggests that consumers of super-size sodas are innocent. Anti-corporate activists, the courts, and time will tell whether, by taking craving out of its political calculus, the health department also let Big Sugar off the hook.