Paula Deen and the politics of personal responsibility

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By now Food Network fans have no doubt heard that its star Paula Deen of Home Cooking fame announced that she has Type 2 diabetes -- a fact she did not disclose for 3 years -- and that she is a paid spokesperson for promoting pharmaceutical giant Novo Nordisks' Victoza, an injectable diabetes drug. Deen's announcement has provoked lots of controversy since her Southern dishes are designed to please the palate, not health. But what it made me think of was another Southern product: tobacco.

That's because the arguments Deen and her supporters have been using to defend her promotion of high-fat, high-calorie foods echo the rhetoric the tobacco industry has long used to shield itself from criticism. In spite of ample evidence that environments thick with junk food and tobacco harm health, both Deen's supporters and Big Tobacco claim that because the dangers of their products are well known, if people consume them, it's their own fault.

Arguing on behalf of Deen, Richard Huff of the New York Daily News* put it most bluntly: "[I]s there anyone -- anyone -- on the planet who can watch Deen's cooking and not say, gee, that's probably not good for me on a regular basis? No, there's not, which makes the controversy even more headspinning."

The "everybody knows it's bad for you" argument is an old trick that Big Tobacco honed to perfection. At least as far back as 1978, Anne Browder of the Tobacco Institute, then the PR mouthpiece of the industry, was arguing that it is the smoker's fault for smoking because the government had already warned people of the dangers from cigarettes:

"The decision to smoke is a personal decision," she said. "Anyone who has not heard or read the Surgeon General's warnings would have had to be a cave dweller."

And in the late 1980s, industry CEOs testified under oath in court that their toxic, addictive products were not to blame for plaintiff Rose Cipollone's death. Instead, they argued her smoking was a matter of personal responsibility.

According to a New York Times article, "The defense contended that she had been frequently warned by her husband and her reading. Defense lawyers said in closing arguments ... that she was intelligent, well-informed, decisive and chose to smoke because she liked it, despite full knowledge of the risks."

Even nominally left-of-center writers have repeated the Tobacco mantra when defending Deen:

"But Deen and her colleagues are not the problem, in spite of their irresponsible promotions of bad eating," writes Jeff Schweitzer in the Huffington Post. "We are. We are eating ourselves to death. Why? Because we have not accepted the basic notion of personal responsibility."

And then there is Deen's own argument, which is that when it comes to rich, butter-laden cooking, it's up to consumers to moderate themselves.

In 2009, for example, Barbara Walters criticized one of Deen's cookbooks for kids, which encourages eating cheesecake for breakfast and meatloaf with chocolate cake for lunch, and asked Deen if she was concerned about contributing to the childhood obesity epidemic. Deen responded that her foods should only be eaten occasionally: "Moderation, you know, we don't eat this every day of our life but like the muffins, children are in such a hurry in the morning getting ready for school you know and they probably are only waking up on the way to school so I encourage them to get in the kitchen on a Saturday with their friends and make up all them muffins."

Still, the argument that unhealthy foods should only be eaten in moderation isn't unique to Deen. It follows the logic of the wider food and beverage industry, which is borrowing from Big Tobacco's playbook to shift the blame from the product to the consumer. The industry argues "there are no healthy or unhealthy foods, only healthy or unhealthy diets," and that maintaining one's health is "not just about calories in. It's also about calories out."

This logic is dangerous because it denies the nutrition science that there are junk foods. And it ignores the fact that the industry -- including Ms. Deen -- spends $2 billion a year marketing primarily unhealthful foods and beverages to children and teens. If the food and beverage industry truly cared about "moderation," it would end its non-stop promotion of unhealthful foods, and help create environments that support healthy choices.

Much of the controversy in the news has mounted a personal defense of Paula. But it's crucial to consider how commentators have rallied behind her. Their arguments show that the food & beverage and tobacco industries have successfully gotten their messages out, and that media personalities -- purposefully or not -- default to those arguments when new controversies about health occur.

*Hat tip to Pamela Mejia for forwarding the NY Daily News piece.

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