Is Fast Food as Addictive as Tobacco?

Two new studies indicate that food manufacturers are using the same marketing strategies as the tobacco industry once did to get consumers hooked on unhealthy products.

Is the obesity crisis the result of a lack of personal responsibility? Or have the world’s major food producers and processing companies deliberately formulated and marketed products that can create a literal addiction among certain people?

No one knows – but two new studies have added fuel to this fiery controversy.

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In an eyebrow-raising article in the latest issue of The Milbank Quarterly, anti-fast-food activist and psychology professor Kelly Brownell of Yale University and professor Kenneth Warner, Dean of the University of Michigan School of Public Health, report on their exhaustive comparison of tobacco and food industry marketing practices over the years.

They note that the food industry and the tobacco industry have used almost identical strategies, including manipulating public opinion, falsifying or slanting scientific data, and denying the addictive nature of their products in their marketing efforts over the decades.

They also zero in on the food industry’s focus on selling to children, pointing out the similarities between Joe Camel pushing smokes to kids and Cap’n Crunch pushing sugary breakfast cereal to kids. Finally, they assert that the food industry deliberately makes their products tasty, cheap, and ubiquitous in order to make them impossible to avoid – or resist.

Is junk food physically addictive? Can a child become “cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs” in the same way that people are “hooked” on nicotine? Brownell and Warner don’t say so in plain English, but they do claim that the food industry’s attempts to play up the “healthy” aspects of their products bear a marked similarity to the tobacco industry’s efforts to promote “light” smokes.

Unless inmates at the state pen start using Ding Dongs as currency, however, it’s unlikely that most obesity experts are going to equate tobacco addiction with overeating.