How personal responsibility arguments help industries avoid regulation: Lessons from Big Tobacco and Big Food

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Tobacco control shines as a beacon of success in public health -- one that has informed advocates from many fields in their efforts to protect the public from harmful products. But just as advocates have learned from tobacco control, major industries have learned from the tobacco industry itself. The food and beverage industry's opposition to recent regulatory efforts, for example, has gotten a lot of attention for resembling the counter-regulatory "playbook" established by the tobacco industry to fight tobacco control policies.

What does this playbook look like and how do Big Food and Big Tobacco's tactics compare? At this year's meeting of the American Public Health Association, we'll dig into these questions and share findings from a content analysis we did of media coverage of both industries.

We started by exploring media coverage of the tobacco industry from 1966 to 1991. We also analyzed news coverage of the food and beverage industry from 2000 to 2011, when obesity emerged as a public health concern. We found that both Big Tobacco and Big Food have shifted responsibility away from themselves and their harmful products by drawing on the deeply held American value of individual responsibility. However, their strategies for doing so differ. Unlike tobacco companies, which placed blame for smoking-related diseases explicitly on consumers, food and beverage representatives primarily have used the news to deflect responsibility by creating costly "corporate social responsibility" campaigns and claiming to be "part of the solution" to nutrition-related diseases.

Our work offers advocates from both tobacco control and obesity prevention a more complete understanding of how two industries use the news to forestall regulation across shifting political landscapes. In addition, our analysis suggests that as the food and beverage industry uses the media to bolster its image, public health advocates must focus their efforts on undermining these self-promoting arguments to change the public's perception not only about harmful foods and beverages themselves, but also about the companies that produce and market them.

Please join us at session 43810 (Getting the message across: Manipulation or education?) on Tuesday, Nov. 5 at 4:30 p.m. to learn more!


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