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June 27, 2023

From Tobacco to Ultra-Processed Products: Uncovering the Manipulative Tactics of Unhealthy Industries on World No Tobacco Day

How can public health advocates identify shared tactics by the tobacco and ultra-processed food industries that undermine public health? That was the topic of a webinar from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and the Global Health Advocacy Incubator (GHAI) for World No Tobacco Day.

Every year on May 31st, World No Tobacco Day provides an opportunity for health champions to discuss solutions for reducing the global toll of tobacco. This year’s theme was designated by the World Health Organization as “We Need Food Not Tobacco.”

The webinar exposed the alarming similarities between the tobacco and ultra-processed product (UPP) industries. The session emphasized the detrimental effects of both industries on public and environmental health, as well as the strategies they employ to manipulate policy, market their products to vulnerable populations like children and maintain profit margins.

Incoming Tobacco-Free Kids President and CEO Yolonda Richardson kicked-off the webinar by recognizing how both industries perpetuate poverty among farmers and workers, keeping them dependent on these harmful sectors. She emphasized the need to curb the use of tobacco products and UPPs and Tobacco-Free Kids’ and GHAI’s work to support policies to save lives and protect public health.

Meg Riordan, Tobacco-Free Kid’s Vice President of Research, delivered an informative presentation on the risks associated with flavored tobacco products. She highlighted how the tobacco industry strategically uses flavors, attractive packaging and marketing techniques to addict new users, particularly young people. Riordan exposed the industry's historical promotion of flavored products, including menthol cigarettes, which have been targeted at African American communities for decades. She also discussed the rise of e-cigarettes and the alarming number of youth using flavored products. Meg concluded by sharing Tobacco-Free Kids' efforts to advocate for regulations that ban flavored tobacco products and deny FDA applications for such products.

Two of GHAI’s Food Policy partners, from Brazil and Colombia, described how the UPP industry uses a playbook copied from Big Tobacco.

Mônica Andreis, ACT Health Promotion’s Managing Director, highlighted how the tobacco and UPP industries interfere in policymaking, including lobbying, manipulation of public opinion through front groups and funding biased research to serve their commercial interests. She also showed how industry's Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) strategies are used to associate themselves with positive initiatives while undermining public health. She also discussed how both industries control large swaths of their supply chains, leverage this economic control and generate capital to influence government bodies, NGOs and academic institutions.

Lastly, Paola Romero, FIAN Colombia’s Project Coordinator, delved into the relationship between food and tobacco production and the communities and environments they negatively affect. She emphasized the negative impact of single-crop production, used in both the UPP and tobacco industries, on soil, water and food availability. Romero highlighted how monoculture tobacco and food cultivation leads to deforestation, the use of harmful chemicals and the displacement of indigenous communities to feed the supply chains that produce unhealthy products. She drew parallels between the tactics employed by the tobacco and UPP industries that reduce peoples’ agency and have historically displaced them and traditional diets. Romero concluded by emphasizing the importance of regulating both production and consumption of tobacco and UPP products to protect human and planetary health and fundamental rights.

The panelists presented a compelling case showing the similarities of the tobacco and UPP industries in promoting unhealthy products, influencing policy and causing significant harm in their production processes. As Mônica Andreis astutely put it, “It’s not a coincidence that the food industry learned from tobacco industry. And nowadays they learn from each other.” The increasing prevalence of diet-related non-communicable diseases is a global public health crisis, caused in large part by the increasing ubiquity of UPPs. This demands a similar response to the one advocates have used against the tobacco industry, to remove the companies from the policymaking table.