Cigarette companies ordered to apologise, but is junk food the new tobacco?

Pointing the finger of blame at others for our poor health and obesity isn't acceptable.

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A US judge has ordered tobacco firms to fund a public health campaign detailing their “past deception” over the risks associated with tobacco use.

The move is predicated on the notion that tobacco companies “deliberately deceived the American public about the health effects of smoking”.

"The President of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids described it as a “vitally important step” that would require tobacco companies to “finally tell the truth" about the "devastating consequences of their wrongdoing”.

And the judge appears to have a solid case. For years smoking was portrayed by big tobacco as an enjoyable, even glamorous habit, and the harm it was doing to customers was ignored, downplayed, and finally, when the lawsuits began to pile up, grudgingly acknowledged.

Even though the industry did finally admit that smoking was addictive and damaging to health, it continues to spend money fighting against campaigns aimed at warning people of the dangers of cigarette smoke; as well as on initiatives which seek to “counteract the ‘denormalisation’ of tobacco”.

It isn’t only the tobacco industry which is looking anxiously towards the courts, however. Researchers in the US have begun to argue that corporations which produce junk food are the new big tobacco. They claim that, like the tobacco companies before them, corporate food giants are portraying themselves as reputable companies who take their social responsibilities seriously, when in reality they care little about the spiralling “obesity epidemic” they are in large part responsible for creating.

“It took five decades after the initial studies linking tobacco and cancer for effective public health policies to be put in place, with enormous cost to human health. Must we wait five decades to respond to the similar effects of Big Food?” a report published earlier this year in the influential PLOS journal asked.

In a not unrelated development, this side of the Atlantic a European consortium is investigating whether or not such a thing as food addiction exist; and if so, whether it should be recognised at a clinical level alongside addictions to drugs and alcohol. Speaking of alcohol, it was also reported that researchers at King’s College London believe they have found the gene which makes people binge drink. Lead researcher Professor Gunter Schumann said people were inclined to “seek out situations which fulfil their sense of reward and make them happy, so if your brain is wired to find alcohol rewarding, you will seek it out”.

If there is any message we might take from all of this it’s a reassuringly absolving one: it isn't your fault. If you happen to be overweight and if your liver is shot from too many Sambucas, not to worry, it isn’t your doing and those whose doing it is will soon be brought to task.

In the case big tobacco, those who’ve suffered a deterioration in their health because of smoking do have a strong case: the tobacco industry did lie to them, and in doing so it behaved abominably. It would take a particularly cold heart to argue that smokers who were oblivious to the harm they were doing to themselves are responsible for their later ill health. Personal responsibility is after all compromised somewhat when the choice a person makes is built on a foundation of sand.

That said, pointing the finger of blame at others for our obesity, or for the consequences of our nights out on the sauce, or because the burgers in McDonalds are a little too appetising, or because junk food is too cheap to begin with (as if that’s a bad thing!), is to hide from reality – people are aware that being overweight is unhealthy and carry on regardless. Why? Because doing unhealthy things often feels very, very good.

Were it not for the fact that the NHS is facing a looming disaster, it wouldn’t matter. But as it was reported on Monday, the NHS is facing a funding shortfall of £54 billion by 2021/22. Even if proposed efficiency savings are implemented, the health service still faces a potential financial black hole of £34 billion. Researchers predict that if current trends continue, up to 48 per cent of men and 43 per cent of women in the UK could be obese by 2030, which translates as a £2 billion per year cost to pay for obesity-related diseases.

Pointing the finger of blame at others for our poor health is rapidly becoming a way to deflect attention from the fact that the very idea of a health service is incompatible with modern lifestyles. The NHS is rightly viewed as a national treasure, and the politicians who meddle with it do so at their peril. But we seem to have forgotten that healthcare has a cost attached, and that we are responsible to each other if not to ourselves for maintaining at least a modicum of good health.

Blaming the food industry for making you fat is a bit like blaming Hooters because your husband likes breasts. It may be comforting to curse the corporate giants as you reach for another chocolate Digestive, but it’s attitudes like this that will end up destroying the NHS.

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