Big Food and Big Tobacco take the long view and so should advocates

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Earlier this month, I tuned into the webcast of the UCSF "It's About a Billion Lives" annual symposium to hear the latest from the tobacco control field. Even though I've heard amazing presentations by UCSF's scientists many times, I was riveted by what scholars Amanda Fallin & Rachel Grana had to say about the role of the tobacco industry in fomenting the Tea Party.

I've read stories before saying the Tea Party isn't the grassroots movement it claims. One of the more prominent involved the Tea Party Express, a bus tour meant to drum up Tea Party support. Led by a Sacramento-based lobbying group, it was widely criticized -- by many within the Tea Party as well as outsiders -- as nothing more than "astroturf," made to seem like grassroots activism but funded and supported by major corporations or wealthy donors. The infamous David Koch, of the Koch brothers, has been called the Tea Party's "wallet" for backing a variety of conservative causes around the country.

But I was blown away by what Fallin and Grana found in the tobacco industry documents. As early as the 1980s, the tobacco industry began working on a way to position smoking as a right that must be protected against governmental intrusion and foresaw how a national movement could support this campaign. In 1993, a PR consultant for Philip Morris offered an eerily prescient recommendation for what this campaign should entail:

"Grounded in the theme of 'The New American Tax Revolution' or 'The New Boston Tea Party,' the campaign should take the form of citizens representing the widest constituency base mobilized with signage and other attention-drawing accoutrements such as lapel buttons, handouts, petitions and even costumes."

Sound familiar?

The authors go on to detail the many ways in which the tobacco industry has been involved in fomenting the Tea Party, including being a "quarterback behind the scenes," and supporting "third-party efforts," such as Citizens for a Sound Economy, an organization founded in 1984 by the Koch brothers that has spawned various Tea Party groups still active today.

No surprise then that the paper (payment required for non-subscribers), has spurred quite a bit of media attention, including some notable pushback. Fox News' spin on the story offers a criticism right out of the tobacco-Tea Party playbook. Fox calls the research "an attractive narrative for Tea Party critics," quoting a Tea Party Patriot co-founder saying, "It's an example of the frivolous spending inside the government that has landed us $17 trillion in debt" -- a critique that echoes criticism of government found in the tobacco industry documents. Most news coverage, however, has shared my shock at how long ago the tobacco industry began its deep involvement with this cause.

Corporate influence in politics is not merely about the Tea Party but about how corporations can undermine effective actions to create a healthier society. For example, right now the FDA's lack of meaningful action on tobacco products is calling into question whether the agency is a public health ally in the fight against the damage caused by the industry's products.

And this issue isn't just limited to Big Tobacco. An abundance of recent evidence points to the food & beverage and alcohol industries using many of these same tactics -- such as strategic donations to public health and civil rights organizations, and stalling governmental action -- to similar effect.

As I listened to Fallin and Grana describe Big Tobacco's Tea Party exploits, it reminded me how good the industry is at playing the long game -- it is able to see potential threats coming well before they manifest, and it is excellent at planning counter strategies. We found that soda companies are up to the same thing when they use corporate social responsibility campaigns to market themselves as part of the solution to obesity. Pepsi, for example, figured out that young people attach major significance to brands perceived to "do good" in the world and used its Refresh Everything campaign as a means to create long-lasting brand loyalties with these consumers.

Whether it's junk foods, alcohol or tobacco, industry has shown time and again that it plans far in advance. Those committed to improving health need to remember this and be ready for a sustained effort to change harmful corporate practices and achieve our health goals.

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