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Researching how tobacco and food companies shift blame to consumer

A $2.7 million grant from the National Cancer Institute will fund research on how the tobacco, fast-food and sweetened-beverage industries use and exploit the concept of personal responsibility and choice, and the resulting effect on public health. The five-year project, led by Northeastern University law professor and leading public health advocate Richard Daynard, will analyze legal and regulatory forums, advertising, public relations efforts and the news media.

As the incidence of obesity-caused health problems and cancers rises, contends Daynard, the food industry has begun emulating patterns pioneered by the tobacco industry: shifting blame from source to consumer to avoid liability and litigation. While such rhetoric in advertising and public relations is well documented, its use in the judicial, regulatory and legislative forums that have the most direct legal implications remains largely unexplored.

“Our goal is to examine how the tobacco industry has used personal responsibility rhetoric to influence courts, legislatures, regulatory agencies and public opinion, and to see to what extent the food and beverage industries have made use of similar strategies,” said Daynard. “If the burden for addressing the harm is left with the consumer rather than the manufacturer, the manufacturer benefits—often at the expense of public health,” he added.

Personal responsibility rhetoric affects the outcome of consumer lawsuits and is a significant hurdle to the implementation of public-health regulations and statutes, such as marketing restrictions, access to the courts, and clean indoor-air laws. The researchers hope their investigations will increase understanding of how such public health policies and policy-based interventions are both created and impeded.

“News transmitting judicial, regulatory, and legislative information and decisions to the public sets the agenda and frames the debate for the public and policy. More importantly, the news media accord legitimacy and credibility to the topics they cover, thus potentially influencing public opinion and legal proceedings,” added Daynard.

A professor and president of the Public Health Advocacy Institute at Northeastern’s School of Law, Daynard is at the forefront of an international movement to establish the legal responsibility of the tobacco industry for tobacco-induced death, disease and disability, and is an international leader in combating the obesity epidemic.

The project will be carried out in collaboration with Northeastern School of Law’s Public Health Advocacy Institute and with the Berkeley Media Studies Group.

For more information on Daynard’s research and the Public Health Advocacy Institute, please visit:

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