Framing health: Lessons from Big Tobacco can guide health advocates battling the food and beverage industry
BERKELEY, CALIF., November 14, 2013 -- Nutrition advocates may be able to use lessons from tobacco control to help government move faster toward protecting the public from harmful food and beverage company products and marketing practices, say the authors of a new study published today by the American Journal of Public Health.
In a content analysis of public and internal documents, the authors, from Berkeley Media Studies Group and the Public Health Advocacy Institute at Northeastern University School of Law, examined national newspapers, tobacco industry documents and the Congressional Record and Congressional Index between 1952 and 1965 to learn how health harms from cigarettes were framed in the early days of anti-tobacco advocacy.
The study found that news coverage of tobacco focused primarily on its health harms -- not who was responsible for addressing them. Much as nutrition advocates often see headlines today about sugary drinks, junk food or other products that fuel disease, pre-1965 conversations about cigarettes were typically disconnected from the industry that produced them.
As such, the personal responsibility rhetoric the tobacco industry became known for in the 1980s and beyond -- rhetoric that food and beverage companies have borrowed and are using today to forestall government regulation and shift blame for their products' health harms onto the consumers who buy them -- was all but absent from both news coverage and industry documents. Instead, tobacco companies focused on raising doubts about cigarettes' links to lung cancer. More than three-quarters of tobacco industry documents denied that cigarettes are harmful to health, with industry spokespeople claiming that the causes of cancer are complex and more research was needed. The industry also discussed cigarettes' alleged benefits, such as a "feeling of well-being and refreshment."
What little discussion there was of culpability identified both individuals and industry as sharing blame for the problem and, strikingly given today's political discourse, called upon government to act.
"The backdrop for early tobacco control was wildly different from today's political climate," Lori Dorfman, the study's lead author and director of the Berkeley Media Studies Group, said. "Profound distrust of the government has made it harder for public health advocates to make the case for protections from harmful products. In the 60s, a belief in government's duty to act to protect public health was the norm."
According to the study, government action was contested only in internal industry documents, not public discussion. News coverage and legislative documents questioned not whether the government should act, but how.
Nevertheless, once the dangers of cigarettes were established, actions were individually oriented and related mostly to providing consumers with more education and warnings about smoking's health harms.
"We now take for granted how effective tobacco taxes and indoor smoking bans are," study author and Public Health Advocacy Institute Director Mark Gottlieb said. "But moving tobacco control efforts from smoking cessation to industry regulation happened over the long haul."
The study authors suggest that advocates now pushing for healthier food environments may be able to do the same, shifting attention from unhealthy foods and beverages to the companies that manufacture and market them. However, they will have to do so within a changed, and more challenging, political context.
Citation: Dorfman L, Cheyne A, Gottlieb MA, Mejia P, Nixon L, Friedman LC, Daynard RA. Am J Public Health. Published online ahead of print November 14, 2013. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2013.301475.
About Berkeley Media Studies Group Berkeley Media Studies Group researches the way public health issues are characterized in the media and helps community groups, journalists and advocates use the media to advance healthy public policy. BMSG is a project of the Public Health Institute.
About Public Health Advocacy Institute The Public Health Advocacy Institute (PHAI) is a legal research center focused on public health law at Northeastern University School of Law. PHAI's goal is to support and enhance a commitment to public health in individuals and institutes who shape public policy through law. PHAI is committed to research in public health law, public health policy development; to legal technical assistance; and to collaborative work at the intersection of law and public health. Their current areas of work include tobacco control and childhood obesity.
Contact: Heather Gehlert, BMSG
(510) 704-3471, firstname.lastname@example.org