Governments could learn from regulation of the tobacco industry to achieve regulation of the processed food industry to tackle rising rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes.
There are a number of parallels between tobacco and processed food. Both contribute to chronic long term health conditions, are not necessary, have been supported by very strong marketing and each industry has employed strong lobbying campaigns.
Just as regular smoking increases the risk of long term health conditions such as heart disease and a number of cancers, a high intake of processed food is associated with higher rates of heart disease, cancers and type 2 diabetes as well. Whilst food is undoubtedly essential for living, processed foods are not essential and are better replaced with non-processed foods.
The dangers of smoking had been known since the 1920s whereas tight regulation of the industry has taken almost a century to take hold. Processed food has also been linked with health problems for many decades but regulation to date, such as the drive to reduce fat in food, rather than restricting food manufacturers has merely allowed those manufacturers to market unhealthy food as being ‘low fat’, ‘light’ and ‘healthy’.
Medical journal, The Lancet notes in its August edition that regulation of the tobacco industry was eventually effective through price increases through taxatio, the banning of advertisements and sponsorship and strong anti-smoking advertising campaigns.
Governments have a long way to go to turn around current trends which include allowing processed food manufacturers to sponsor global sporting competitions such as the Olympics and football’s World Cup. Furthermore, some of the least healthy foods are actively promoted within hospitals.
The tobacco industry is a good model for regulation of the processed food industry in terms of the products being legal but with negative long term health implications. Regulation of processed food has more challenges as to where the line is drawn as to what constitutes unhealthy processed food.
Changes in the regulation of tobacco took such a long time to take hold,, in large part because the tobacco industry employed fierce lobbying tactics to oppose tight regulation that would stem their profits. Likewise, the food industry is also supported by aggressive lobbying that will do its utmost to retain the multi-billion dollar profits made by global food companies.
Larry Cohe, of the Prevention Institute, an institution that aims to prevent chronic diseases, states: “We cannot negotiate with them; we don’t want to let them look good by making it appear as though they are trying to work things out with us. Their primary goal is to make money and if they do that by selling unhealthy products, we need to make it very clear that that is not acceptable.” Mr Cohen’s views on the situation directly oppose the UK government’s approach which has welcomed processed food companies to influence food regulation policy.

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