Column: Candy, soda companies copy tactics from Big Tobacco

The makers of Skittles, shown above, and other candy manufacturers funded a study that showed that children who eat candy weigh less than those who don’t. The “Big Fat Industries” are using the Big Tobacco playbook to mislead consumers.
The makers of Skittles, shown above, and other candy manufacturers funded a study that showed that children who eat candy weigh less than those who don’t. The “Big Fat Industries” are using the Big Tobacco playbook to mislead consumers.
Published June 7, 2016

It really isn't a surprise that candymakers and soda companies are funding so-called "research" that concludes their products are actually good for children and do not contribute to poor health.

As described in a recent Associated Press article, "How candymakers shape nutrition science," one of the industry's most powerful tactics is the funding of "nutrition research" designed to mislead consumer thinking about healthy eating. The report cited as an example how the makers of Butterfingers, Hershey and Skittles products funded a study that showed children and adolescents who eat candy are less overweight or obese than those who don't.

While the article was insightful, it didn't offer the genesis of this "science" dressed in marketing clothes. What we call "Big Fat Industries" — fast food, soft drink and junk food makers — have been doing this for years. And they got this strategy from the Big Tobacco playbook.

For more than a decade of experience and research in teen tobacco use reduction, followed by a decade working in childhood obesity prevention, I've researched how this all goes back to when Big Tobacco funded studies that claimed cigarettes do not cause lung cancer. The strategy has since been adopted by Big Fat Industries, which consistently fund "scientific research" that makes equally outrageous claims.

For example, as recently as the 1980s, Big Tobacco was still spending millions on "scientific research" — called the Whitecoat project — that supposedly found that tobacco does not cause lung cancer. This strategy dates back nearly 70 years, to when tobacco companies in 1949 paid doctors large sums to say cigarettes were a healthy treatment for throat irritation.

In this decade, Coca-Cola's sponsorships of the American Academy of Pediatrics — more than $3 million since 2010 — have included paying for a study that concluded sugar-laden soda does not play a role in the obesity epidemic. Rather, it stated that lack of sleep was more of a cause.

In another similarity between Big Tobacco and Big Fat Industries, they both have used the same strategy of claiming to make "safer" products. Big Tobacco developed "low-tar" and "light" cigarettes, which helped cigarette sales rebound from the headlines of that time that revealed cigarettes cause lung cancer. Independent research later showed "low-tar" and "light" cigarettes are as deadly and dangerous as other cigarettes.

More recently, Big Fat Industries, concerned over the mountains of evidence linking their products to obesity, have introduced products like "low-fat" that often merely replace the fat with lots of sugar, which doesn't make the products any more healthful.

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There are also similarities in the marketing approaches. Targeting children with fun characters as spokespeople: Joe Camel and Ronald McDonald. Using athlete endorsements: Mickey Mantle (for Viceroy cigarettes) and LeBron James (for McDonald's). And tying into superhero movies: Superman with Christopher Reeve (Marlboro cigarettes) and nearly every recent superhero movie from Iron Man and Thor (Burger King) to Fantastic Four (Crush soda).

The use of Big Tobacco's strategies by Big Fat Industries has played a significant role in fueling the nation's obesity epidemic. In 15 years, 6 in 10 adults in Pinellas County will be obese — and this does not include those who are simply overweight. The numbers are even worse for minorities: 72 percent of African-Americans and 64 percent of Hispanics will be obese. All of this is expected to occur by 2030.

Think about this the next time someone wants to sell you some "scientific research." The Associated Press article should mark only the beginning of the media more thoroughly vetting health and nutrition studies funded by Big Fat Industries. And consumers should pay more attention to the money behind this fake, misleading "research."

Dewey Caruthers of St. Petersburg-based Dewey & Associates is a national-level expert in obesity prevention whose childhood obesity research and programming has been used in five states. He also regularly speaks at national conferences on the topic.