Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Refreshments Canada President playing from Big Tobacco's playbook

There was a letter to the editor in yesterday's Edmonton Journal. The letter was written by Mr. Justin Sherwood, the President of Refreshments Canada. According to their website Refreshments Canada,
"represents more than 30 brands of beverages including bottled waters, juices and carbonated soft drinks, all of which have a place in a healthy, balanced lifestyle and offer consumers choice and variety."
Justin was writing in response to a column written by Dr. Louis Francescutti (an ER doc and the President of the Alberta Public Health Association) who called for government regulations to ban trans fats, regulate advertising targeting children and remove harmful foods (trans fats, high-sugar and high-fat foods, and low-nutrient foods) from school vending machines.

That madman!

In any case, Justin was understandably upset. You see Justin represents many of the beverages that Dr. Francescutti's plan would see leave the schools. So what did Justin do? He proved Dr. Francescutti's point that Big Food is playing by Big Tobacco's playbook. If you'd like to read the playbook have a gander at Kelly Brownell and Kenneth Warner's recent paper, The Perils of Ignoring History: Big Tobacco Played Dirty and Millions Died. How Similar Is Big Food? in which the authors spell out how Big Tobacco's spin machine set out to delay the inevitable taxation and vilification of their product and then draw comparisons with Big Food.

According to Brownell and Warner if Big Food plays by Big Tobacco's rules these are the plays we'll be seeing (with excerpts from Justin's letter italicized throughout):

  • Focus on personal responsibility as the cause of the nation’s unhealthy diet.
    "Proper nutrition education at home and in the school system is the most effective way to teach young people to make choices in a healthy and balanced way"
  • Raise fears that government action usurps personal freedom.
    "I am writing to express concern over the heavy-handed approach to the theme of this opinion article."
  • Vilify critics with totalitarian language, characterizing them as the food police, leaders of a nanny state, and even “food fascists,” and accuse them of desiring to strip people of their civil liberties.
    "The author is obviously an experienced medical practitioner, but his misguided advice reflects his role as a civil and public servant, in that he insists on more government regulations to protect adults and children from making poor food choices."
  • Criticize studies that hurt industry as “junk science.”

  • Emphasize physical activity over diet.

  • State there are no good or bad foods; hence no food or food type
    (soft drinks, fast foods, etc.) should be targeted for change
    "Obesity is a very complex issue which cannot be blamed on a single food or beverage group as the major cause."
  • Plant doubt when concerns are raised about the industry.
    "Refreshments Canada members have been working closely with nutrition experts in the education system to ensure that healthy beverage choices, which are age appropriate, are presented in public schools across Canada."
    Pretty impressive Justin - you hit almost all the plays and in only 225 words! No wonder you're the President of Refreshments Canada.

    Justin, if you're reading this, I don't hate your products. I do believe in choice. I don't however believe in misleading the public, spinning the truth and doctoring the message.

    Let's all hope that this time around the public is more savvy than during those bad old days of Big Tobacco.

    Kelly D. Brownell, & Kenneth E. Warner (2009). Big Tobacco Played Dirty and Millions Died. How Similar Is Big Food? The Milbank Quarterly, 87 (1), 259-294 PMID: 19298423