Big Tobacco’s Influence on Unhealthy Foods

by Ella

For decades, tobacco companies have been accused of employing tactics to make cigarettes more addictive, and a recent study now suggests they may have employed similar strategies to entice consumers into indulging in processed foods.

During the 1980s, tobacco giants Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds ventured into the food industry, acquiring major companies like Kraft, General Foods, and Nabisco. This move allowed tobacco corporations to gain a substantial foothold in America’s food supply and profit from beloved brands such as Oreo cookies, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, and Lunchables.


By the 2000s, these tobacco giants divested from their food holdings, but their impact on the food industry remained. A recent study, published in the journal “Addiction,” delves into the proliferation of “hyper-palatable” foods—products loaded with a potent combination of fat, sodium, sugar, and additives designed to trigger cravings and overeating. This research indicates that during the decades when tobacco companies controlled major food corporations, the foods they marketed were significantly more likely to fall into the hyper-palatable category compared to similar products from non-tobacco-owned companies.


Over the last 30 years, hyper-palatable foods have become increasingly prevalent in the food supply, coinciding with a surge in obesity and diet-related health issues. In the United States, the most significant surge in the prevalence of hyper-palatable foods occurred between 1988 and 2001, a period when Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds held sway over major food companies.


Even though tobacco companies have since relinquished their control over these food brands, experts argue that the findings are pertinent because many of today’s ultra-processed foods were crafted by an industry that perfected products designed to be highly palatable, addictive, and enticing to children.


The lead author of the study, Tera Fazzino, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Kansas, asserts that tobacco companies deliberately introduced hyper-palatable foods into the food supply. Understanding the origins of these foods, she contends, is crucial for comprehending their pervasive presence in our environment.

The research team conducted an in-depth examination of documents housed in the University of California at San Francisco’s Industry Documents Library, a repository containing millions of internal tobacco industry documents. These records revealed insights into how tobacco companies formulated their products to be addictive and the strategies they employed for marketing.

Fazzino and her colleagues pinpointed 105 best-selling products from brands owned by either Philip Morris or R.J. Reynolds between 1988 and 2001. During this period, R.J. Reynolds owned Nabisco, known for popular brands such as Oreo cookies, Teddy Grahams, Ritz crackers, and SnackWell’s fat-free Devils Food cookies. Meanwhile, Philip Morris controlled Kraft-General Foods, which produced household names like Kraft Mac & Cheese, Jell-O, Kool-Aid, and Oscar Mayer hot dogs.

A comparative analysis was performed, assessing the nutritional composition of these tobacco-owned foods against 587 similar products from competing brands not under tobacco ownership. The results indicated that tobacco-owned foods were 80 percent more likely to contain combinations of carbohydrates and sodium known to make them hyper-palatable. Additionally, these products were 29 percent more likely to feature potent combinations of fat and sodium.

These findings suggest that tobacco companies formulated processed foods to hit what experts call the “bliss” point—triggering cravings and overconsumption. Ashley Gearhardt, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan who specializes in food addiction, noted that hyper-palatable foods share striking similarities with addictive substances. They contain ingredients extracted from natural sources and foods, which are then purified, concentrated, and transformed into products that rapidly enter the bloodstream, stimulating the brain’s reward centers.

While the tobacco industry no longer owns food brands, its profound influence on the food supply persists. The study’s conclusions emphasize that many of the ultra-processed foods prevalent today were created by an industry adept at engineering products to be highly palatable and addictive.

Philip Morris, now known as Altria, declined to comment, and R.J. Reynolds, Kraft, and Mondelez, the parent company of Nabisco, did not respond to requests for comment.

This significant foray into the food industry by tobacco companies began six decades ago as a strategy to diversify their portfolios. Leveraging their extensive resources in colors, flavors, and additives initially developed for cigarettes, tobacco executives recognized their potential to create various processed foods.

In the 1960s, R.J. Reynolds embarked on a project to develop sugary drinks, with market research even targeting children. RJR’s acquisition of Hawaiian Punch, a cocktail mixer with only two flavors at the time, was followed by extensive market research focused on children and housewives. RJR expanded the brand to feature at least 16 flavors, many of which were preferred by kids. The company also pioneered the nationally distributed “juice box,” with Punchy, a cartoon mascot, contributing to its success.

This trend continued as RJR ventured into other foods, including puddings and maple syrup. In 1985, the tobacco giant acquired Nabisco, propelling it to a dominant position in the food industry. The conglomerate introduced several successful processed foods, such as Teddy Grahams, a bite-sized children’s snack that ranked as the third best-selling cookie, behind only Chips Ahoy and Oreo.

Philip Morris adopted a similar strategy when it acquired General Foods in 1985. This acquisition allowed the company to gain significant influence in the food industry, launching various processed foods. The “SnackWell’s” cookies, introduced in the early 1990s, quickly became a sensation, appealing to weight-conscious consumers. However, these snacks, marketed as low-fat and fat-free, contained substantial sugar and calories, often leading consumers to overindulge, a phenomenon known as the “SnackWell effect.”

One of the most notable products under Philip Morris was Lunchables, introduced in 1988 by Oscar Mayer. Packaged as a prepackaged meal for busy moms and children, it consisted of bologna, crackers, and processed cheese, containing high levels of sodium and saturated fat. The success of Lunchables, generating $218 million in sales within its first year, prompted Oscar Mayer to introduce additional variations, including Lunchables with Snickers bars, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Kool-Aid, and Capri Sun.

As the early 2000s arrived, Philip Morris faced legal challenges related to tobacco, with its food-side executives warned of potential litigation risks associated with the health effects of processed foods. This raised concerns about the potential compulsive eating driven by some cookies and processed foods.

While tobacco companies have since exited the food industry, their legacy in shaping the food supply endures. By 2018, the differences between foods once owned by tobacco companies and those from other brands had largely faded. Foods have not necessarily become healthier; instead, other companies have seemingly followed the tobacco industry’s playbook to make their products equally hyper-palatable.



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