Sweet nothings and fat cats

15 09 2016

Much has been written this week about the sugar industry’s dirty tactics to shift blame to fat in order to preserve (even expand) their business model and fatten their own bottom line. My news feed has been ablaze with expressions of surprise and anger at the sugar industry for deceiving the American public about what is now a public health crisis (obesity).

What’s surprising to me is that people are still getting surprised. Indeed, this is exactly the sort of thing many industries have done, and will keep doing until they get caught.

History shows that when you are in the business of selling an inherently harmful product, and under the inexorably expansionist logic of free-market capitalism, the profit motive will have you stop at nothing to keep selling more of it.  For a riveting (and appalling) account of this history, I highly recommend “Merchants of Doubt” by Oreskes & Conway (now a motion picture).


The basic tenet is simple: carefully manipulate public perception about your product to make it sound like we either don’t know that it’s dangerous, or that the harm is caused by something else.  Once the public is confused or thoroughly mislead, it’s impossible to get political consensus on any kind of regulation, and you can keep doing business as you see fit.

The tobacco industry is the most famous of such doubt-mongerers for having been caught in the act. But as “Merchants of Doubt” recounts, there are many other such examples (pesticides, mattress flame retardants, acid rain, the ozone hole, and most consequentially for our civilization, climate change). The  industries behind such campaigns knew full well that they were selling a harmful product, and they just kept doing it until they got caught.

Some of them are still at it, and will continue to do so until they are forced to throw the towel. For instance, the fossil fuel industry is still funding free-market think tanks to keep confusing the public about the causes and risk of climate change, and stave off meaningful regulation to prevent dangerous interference with the climate system.  The fracking lobby is still pretending it’s not polluting groundwater, emitting tons of natural gas at its wellheads, or inducing earthquakes in areas that previously experienced very few of them.

The sugar industry is merely the latest cat to have used the tobacco strategy to pay off unscrupulous scientists and shift blame to preserve its business model and get fatter.   Those of us still surprised by such examples of corporate malfeasance are encouraged to read/watch this admirable piece of work.