Is Plastic Food Storage as bad as Cigarettes?

Posted by Steve Reble on

You don’t need to be a doctor to know smoking causes cancer. But that wasn’t always the case.

For years, smoking cigarettes was considered cool and maybe even, ah, healthy for new moms. 

When research linking cigarette use to cancer began to mount, the “nonprofit” Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF), run by lobbyist Richard Berman, was born.

The CCF launched with a $600,000 donation from tobacco giant Philip Morris, who eventually gave 49 to 79% of its charitable budget to the Center between 1995 and 1998. In return, the CCF created a series of campaigns and polls aimed at proving that Americans weren’t interested in smoking regulation. All against the backdrop of the very public decline and eventual deaths of multiple Marlboro Men from Lung Cancer.

These days, the Center for Consumer Freedom is focussing its research on another product: plastic.

While average American consumers are now becoming aware of plastic pollution and the growing pacific garbage patch, they are less aware of evidence associating plastic food storage with cancer causing chemicals.  

When research emerged about the negative effects of chemicals such as BPA in Plastics, the American Chemistry Council (whose board members include Dow, DuPont, Marathon Petroleum, and ExxonMobil among others) lobbied against legislation to regulate BPA and similar chemicals in the US. In doing so, they hired many of the same scientists, consultants and PR companies that once worked for Big Tobacco. Their work resulted in the launch of a PR campaign featuring the slogan "Listen to the Science."

Sound familiar?

In addition, the CCF and ACC have used their money to sponsor specific environmental protection groups that were originally created to keep them honest.   

They also launched Plastics Make It Possible, a website which creates, shares, and sponsors “hip” posts about the benefits of plastic on websites such as Buzzfeed. Much of this content is about plastic’s positive contributions to medicine, human health, and the environment.

Single-use plastic companies have also launched campaigns which equate freshness from plastic with youth, health, and vitality, using similar creative executions over the last 60 years.

Consumers have long adopted plastic as a food storage convention and rarely think twice when food arrives in a plastic wrap or a plastic container.

But evidence has shown that chemicals from these plastic products can be traced  in our food and stool.

That’s why, for example, the wrapping on certain brands of salmon insist you don’t thaw your food in its package.

Of course, plastic is good for some things. But by applying Big Tobacco’s conversation steering strategies, Big Plastic appears to be steering a conversation about health, and begs the question asked by The Washington Post and others: why?

In the face of mounting evidence around plastic’s connection to cancer-causing chemicals, is all this talk from Big Plastic a red flag? Could groups like the American Chemistry Council be steering science to protect the plastic industry?

It took nearly 50 years for the public –– and the courts –– to catch on to Big Tobacco’s “conspiracy to defraud the American public about the health risks of tobacco.”  Something to think about the next time you put your veggies into a plastic bag.


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  • Thank you. This was very helpful and informative. I appreciate your mission. I am encouraging my clients to use glass for food storage. The food tastes better, and it’s better for you!

    Carole Mayback on
  • My big concern is how to avoid buying food that has plastic covers, etc. There is a lot such as fruits, vegetables, fish and meat from the counter, which is not in plastic in our market. But it is all the others. I can see the food because of the plastic but then there is the plastic which is not recyclable – too heavy or cellophane.

    Beulah Downing on

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