Well, that didn’t take long.
Just hours after CVS announced last Wednesday that it would halt sales of tobacco, public health activists and their media allies seized the opportunity to advance a notion championed by such anti-“Big Food” luminaries as The New York Times’ Mark Bittman and the Dean of Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Health, Kelly Brownell: food is the next tobacco.
For instance, the Texas Medical Association sent out the following tweet:
— Texas Medical Association (@texmed) February 5, 2014
The commentary referenced in the tweet stated baldly, “Wander the aisles of CVS and see how their nutritional offerings fit within the framework of an organization pitching health.”
Next, this from Slate business and economics correspondent Matthew Yglesias:
But the cigarettes issue seems to me to mostly raise the question of how far CVS can really go down this road. After all, I was in CVS just yesterday to buy myself some Diet Coke. The Diet Coke sits next to the sugary sodas. And they’re across the aisle from the potato chips. Up front where you cash out there are lots of M&M’s and Snickers bars.
A Saturday op-ed in The Boston Globe called on CVS to put soda, energy drinks, and other “sugary beverages” behind the counter. In support of its absurd viewpoint, the piece quoted health researcher Deborah Cohen from the (normally cerebral) think tank RAND Corporation, who proclaimed, “The food industry is just shoving food in to us.” Nice imagery.
Speaking of imagery, the food=tobacco messaging wouldn’t be complete without a political cartoon. One by nationally syndicated cartoonist Jimmy Margulies appeared Saturday on the Washington Post op-ed page.
Food companies obviously chafe at the comparison of these two highly dissimilar product categories, as should any person who doesn’t have an axe to grind. But now that opportunities for paternalistic power and money through tobacco control are waning, anti-Big Food activists and their erstwhile allies in the plaintiffs’ bar see food as a logical and vulnerable next target. And they have at the ready an effective strategic activism plan, battle-tested from the “tobacco wars.”
Activists developed that tobacco playbook, Washington Legal Foundation has long argued, with “next” targets like food specifically in mind. We have always felt that tobacco was a convenient stalking horse hiding a larger agenda. In an April 2002 advertorial published on the op-ed page of The New York Times entitled “Eating Away Our Freedoms,” WLF asked “Will our favorite foods soon join tobacco and other legal products as the next target of anti-democratic regulation by litigation?” That has in fact been happening for some time.
Because of what had transpired over the previous decade, in 2011 WLF initiated a project with the same name as our 2002 advertorial—”Eating Away Our Freedoms.” By drawing upon all of WLF’s public interest tools, the Eating Away Our Freedoms project is aimed at illuminating how the public relations, legal, and regulatory attacks on consumers’ favorite foods and beverages are interlocking and highly coordinated.
That several prominent voices in public health and the media moved so swiftly to criticize CVS as hypocritical for continuing to sell disfavored food products indicates that anti-Big Food crusaders’ methods and message are truly starting to take hold.
The targets of this burgeoning Food Fight may not want to believe it, but their time has come. Food and beverage companies are no longer “next”—they are now.
This post also published at WLF’s Forbes.com contributor page