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How Big Tobacco Got People Hooked on Food


Sunday, September 17th, 2023


This week’s core story is about: How big tobacco got people hooked on food.

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A new recommendation from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises everyone aged 6 months and older to get the updated COVID vaccines this fall. The recommendation comes amid a late-summer uptick in COVID cases nationwide, including an increase in hospitalizations. Cases and hospitalizations remain far below their pandemic-era highs, though wastewater data indicates particularly strong waves in the West and Northeast.

A new report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) could reduce economy-wide carbon emissions by up to 43% below 2005 levels by 2030. The report also examined a scenario in which the IRA was never passed, finding that economy-wide CO2 emissions would fall by a maximum of 33% by 2030 without the legislation. The agency says the estimates relied on “modeling results from recent peer-reviewed literature, government reports, and EPA-funded modeling and analysis.”

New data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows the U.S. has experienced a record number of billion-dollar weather disasters this year, with four months left to go. The data shows the U.S. has experienced 23 extreme weather events that cost at least $1 billion so far this year, beating the previous record of 22 set in 2020. This year’s disasters have already cost nearly $58 billion and claimed at least 253 lives. Since 1980, the U.S. has experienced 371 billion-dollar climate and weather disasters, costing a total of more than $2.615 trillion.

A new study by scientists at Lithium Americas Corporation, GNS Science, and Oregon State University found the McDermitt Caldera on the border of Nevada and Oregon could be the world’s largest lithium deposit. The study found the volcanic crater holds anywhere from 20 to 40 million metric tons of lithium, surpassing the reserves in Bolivia’s famed salt flats, which hold around 23 million tons. Experts say, if the finding holds up, it could change the dynamics of lithium globally, upending the landscape in terms of price, security of supply, and geopolitics.

How Big Tobacco Got People Hooked on Food

A new study found big tobacco owned food brands produced hyper-palatable foods.

Shoshy Ciment

The tobacco industry was heavily involved in America’s food industry for some two decades, developing foods under popular brands that scientists say were engineered to be difficult to stop eating.

What’s happening:

In 2016, Chile implemented its novel Food Labeling and Advertising Law, taking aim at food producers in the hopes of addressing the country’s growing obesity rate. Among other things, the law bans the marketing of unhealthy foods to children, prohibits sales of unhealthy foods in schools, and mandates front-of-package warning labels for foods that are high in sugar, salt, fat, or calories.

The law is viewed as the most comprehensive set of obesity-prevention regulations in the world, and includes criteria defining which foods qualify as unhealthy based on nutrients and food components, rather than food groups.

In a 2021 study, researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill used the Chilean model of unhealthy foods to examine the amount of energy, sodium, sugar, and saturated fats U.S. adults consume through junk foods, as defined by the law’s criteria.

The researchers found nearly half of all energy (47%), sodium (46%), and saturated fats (48%) consumed by American adults are derived from junk foods. What's more, a whopping 75% of all sugar consumed by adults comes from junk food, led by sugar-sweetened beverages (responsible for 40% of sugar intake from junk foods). In all, the researchers found American adults consume 4.8 junk food items per day.

The results are in line with a 2020 study that applied the Chilean model to U.S. children and adolescents, finding 56% of energy, 55% of sodium, 43% of saturated fat, and 82% of total sugar consumed by American kids is derived from junk foods.

Taken together, the findings highlight America’s obsession with junk food (though, it should be noted that some of the intake qualifying under the Chilean model comes from foods you might not view as “junk foods,” such as sandwiches and processed meats).

But who’s to blame for our obsession? New research offers a surprising culprit: big tobacco.

What the research says:

A new study by researchers at the University of Kansas found food brands owned by tobacco companies like Phillip Morris and RJ Reynolds produced a disproportionately high number of “hyper-palatable foods” between 1988 and 2001, “resulting in substantial tobacco-related influence on the U.S. food system.” Food brands that were once tobacco-owned (tobacco companies divested from the food industry in the early 2000s) include Oreo, Ritz, Kool-Aid, Capri Sun, and Oscar Mayer, among others.

The researchers described hyper-palatable foods as ones that are “irresistible and difficult to stop eating,” often having “combinations of palatability-related nutrients, specifically fat, sugar, sodium, or other carbohydrates.”

“These combinations of nutrients provide a really enhanced eating experience and make them difficult to stop eating,” said lead author Tera Fazzino. “These effects are different than if you just had something high in fat but had no sugar, salt or other type of refined carbohydrate.”

The researchers analyzed 373 tobacco-owned food brands and compared their products to food items not owned by tobacco brands in the same time period, finding tobacco-owned foods were 29% more likely to be classified as fat-and-sodium hyper-palatable and 80% more likely to be carbohydrate-and-sodium hyper-palatable than foods that weren’t tobacco-owned.

“The question about their intent — we can’t really say from this data,” Fazzino said. “But what we can say is there’s evidence to indicate tobacco companies were consistently involved with owning and developing hyperpalatable foods during the time that they were leading our food system. Their involvement was selective in nature and different from the companies that didn’t have a parent tobacco-company ownership.”

The work builds on a 2019 study by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco that found tobacco companies developed and heavily marketed sugary drinks to kids, and directly transferred tobacco marketing strategies used to target racial minorities to their food businesses.

Why it matters:

Research in recent years has found a connection between consuming highly processed foods and adverse health impacts, including increased risks of obesity, cardiovascular disease, mortality, and depression. Other work has also found higher consumption of ultra-processed foods may be associated with a greater risk of developing and dying from cancer, specifically ovarian and brain cancers.

Discouraging consumption isn’t easy, and, in the case of some lower-income households, might not be feasible. Studies have shown that taxes and front-of-packing warning labels can be helpful, and can be implemented at the municipal, state, or federal level. Researchers also argue minimally processed foods and fresh meals should be subsidized, so lower-income families can access healthier foods.

Another policy solution stems from big tobacco itself: classify highly processed foods as addictive based on a 1988 Surgeon General report outlining the scientific evidence that tobacco products are addictive.

Experts say highly processed foods can meet the criteria for addictiveness outlined in the report, including triggering compulsive use, having psychoactive effects, and being highly reinforcing. They argue labeling the foods as addictive could help advance new treatments and public health approaches to discourage consumption, as was the case after tobacco products were given the label.

Whether that happens obviously remains to be seen, but don’t get your hopes up, since the U.S. has a habit of not restricting a number of ingredients that have been banned in other jurisdictions.

Regardless, big tobacco’s fingerprints can still be seen in the food industry today.

“The majority of what’s out there in our food supply falls under the hyperpalatable category,” said KU’s Fazzino.

“It’s actually a bit difficult to track down food that’s not hyperpalatable. In our day-to-day lives, the foods we’re surrounded by and can easily grab are mostly the hyperpalatable ones. And foods that are not hyperpalatable, such as fresh fruits and vegetables – they’re not just hard to find, they’re also more expensive. We don’t really have many choices when it comes to picking between foods that are fresh and enjoyable to eat [] and foods that you just can’t stop eating.”


A new study found people with intermediate levels of scientific knowledge can be overconfident in their actual knowledge and hostile toward science.


An Intermediate Level of Scientific Knowledge Is Associated with Overconfidence and Negative Attitudes About Science

A new study by researchers in Portugal found people with intermediate levels of scientific knowledge tend to be overconfident in their actual level of scientific knowledge, and often harbor the least positive attitudes toward science.

  • The researchers sought to develop a novel confidence metric by examining four large surveys conducted over 30 years in the U.S. and Europe, finding overconfidence in one’s own scientific knowledge peaks at intermediate levels, and that people with intermediate knowledge and high confidence tend to be the most hostile toward science.

  • According to study author André Mata, “This combination of overconfidence and negative attitudes towards science is dangerous, as it can lead to the dissemination of false information and conspiracy theories, in both cases with great confidence.” 



A new study using NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope found possible signs of life on a potentially habitable exoplanet.


Astronomers Found a Possible Sign of Life on a Habitable Exoplanet

A new study by researchers at the University of Cambridge in the U.K. using NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope found possible signs of dimethyl sulfide (DMS) in the hydrogen-rich atmosphere of the ocean-covered K2-18 b, an exoplanet 8.6 times bigger than Earth located some 120 light-years away within the habitable zone of the cool dwarf K2-18 (concept art of K2-18 b and K2-18 is pictured above).

  • Finding DMS on K2-18 b is significant because, on Earth, the compound is only produced by biological life (mainly by phytoplankton), suggesting life may indeed be present on the exoplanet.

  • More work is needed to confirm the findings, which were published on the arXiv preprint database. Reminder: preprint studies have yet to be peer reviewed and accepted for publication by an academic journal.



A new analysis shows demand for weight loss drugs might have prevented a recession in Denmark.


Weight Loss Drugs Might Have Stopped a Danish Recession

A new analysis by economist Joseph Politano found demand for the popular weight-loss drugs Ozempic (which isn’t FDA-approved as a weight loss drug) and Wegovy (the new drug approved for treating obesity) is so strong that it has “functionally prevented a recession in Denmark.” The drugs are produced by Danish pharmaceutical giant Novo Nordisk, which has also become Europe’s most valuable publicly traded company.

  • The analysis found pharmaceuticals drove two-thirds of Danish GDP growth in 2022, and have since counteracted a significant downturn in the rest of the country’s economy. Over the past year, Danish GDP is up roughly 1.1%, but excluding pharmaceuticals it’s down -0.9%, meaning drugmakers have added around 2% to the country’s economic growth.

  • Politano also found weight loss drugs are the dominant driver of Danish manufacturing growth “by a wide margin.” Since 2018, pharmaceuticals production has increased by 166%, while overall manufacturing has increased by 35%, and manufacturing excluding pharmaceuticals has fallen by 0.3%.


  • -2.3% - The decrease in U.S. vaccination intentions per Facebook user due to harmful content on the platform, according to a new preprint study posted on the PsyArXiv database. The study found the effect was “driven predominantly by vaccine-skeptical content from mainstream sites, rather than outright misinformation published by fringe outlets.” Reminder: preprint studies have yet to be peer reviewed and accepted for publication by an academic journal.

  • 4.4x - The increase in U.S. drug overdose deaths from 1999 to 2020, according to a new study by researchers at Florida Atlantic University. The study also found that from May 2022 to May 2023, the U.S. experienced its highest number of drug overdose deaths ever recorded in any 12-month period.


Long Video. Learn about the sudden, massive rise of the newest e-commerce behemoth: Temu. (16 min)

Short Video. Why have 2x4s gotten smaller over the years? (7 min)

Fun Video. Learn how one Pennsylvania dirt farm supplies most MLB infields. (7 min)

Good Read. Read an excerpt from journalist Taylor Lorenz’s new book, Extremely Online, about the woman who invented the modern influencer. (3,717 words; 19 min)

Neat List. Check out the winners of the 2023 Ig Nobel Prizes.


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Written by Ryan Wittler