By Subfringe staff
Thurs, Oct 29, 2015

Subfringe looks at the significance of the recent World Health Organization warning linking meat consumption and cancer and finds a promising parallel in the decades long battle against big tobacco.

When the World Health Organization (WHO) announced this week that processed meats would be added to the list of known carcinogens, reactions were as oddly apathetic as the news was significant.

On social media, comments on the order of, "Just living is dangerous, whatever you do," mimicked the halting denial of smokers two decades ago when evidence linking tobacco and cancer began to be widely acknowledged by public bodies and received affirmation in the first successful lawsuits against cigarette makers - something of which family and friends of smokers had long been without doubt.

Likewise, any vegetarian can relate stories of a friend who, after years on a meat free diet, began to develop serious health problems within months of a return to an omnivorous diet.

For many vegetarians, as for relatives of smokers in decades past, the official confirmation that meat consumption leads to cancer is a non-event, even if the potential implications for the general public and for the meat industry may prove to be huge, as we'll see.

The Battle Against Big Tobacco

It's worth considering how the evidence and challenges against tobacco companies unfolded and spilled into public consciousness over several decades.

In 1950, American scientists Ernst Wyndner and Evarts Graham noted in a published study that 96% of lung cancer patients were moderate to heavy smokers. In 1954, a lawsuit seeking to hold RJ Reynolds responsible for a fatal case of lung cancer failed. In 1963, an internal Brown&Williamson legal memo notes that, "Nicotine is addictive." By 1964, the Surgeon General issued a report warning of health risks from smoking, and by 1966, warning labels appeared on cigarette packaging. In 1979, the CDC set a target to reduce smoking to below 25% of the general population by 1990 (1). By 1990, the official figure was 25.5%, a remarkable 23% decline over the course of the intervening decade.

Coincidentally with the CDC target, or not, in 1992, the US Supreme Court ruled in the case of Cipollone v. Liggett Group, Inc that the warning on cigarette packaging, in place since 1966, did not shield tobacco companies from legal damages. Only two years earlier, damages had been denied in the re-trial of the case of Nathan Horton in Lexington, MS, after it was found the cigarette industry had nonetheless been "irresponsible" in the use of fertilizers and pesticides in tobacco growth, resulting in Mr Horton's fatal case of lung cancer.

High profile media stories and libel suits resulted in 1994 from a leak of insider documents, in which the industry was able to silence critics, but not hold off a flurry of states suits seeking to recoup public health costs. In 1996, former smoker Grady Carter of Jacksonville, FL was awarded $750,000 in a case against Brown&Williamson, in which leaked documents played a part in the decision (2).

While smokers accounted for 25% of the population in 1990, in 1965 they had accounted for 42% (3). That's a decline of nearly 40% in 25 years, as evidence accumulated showing the damages to health of smoking, official bodies at least tacitly acknowledged the problem, and legislation in various countries began to place limits and taxes on cigarettes. It's also interesting to note that over the past decade leading to the present, the number has leveled off at 20%, as regulations have become so tight as to make smoking a barely legal activity in many places.

Regulating Meat

To return to the present question of the dangers of meat consumption, it's interesting to consider whether there could follow a decline similar to that seen in smoking.

In 2006, New York City passed a ban on trans fats in restaurants in the interest of preventing heart disease, with estimates of $140 billion in savings in health care costs over 20 years. The legislation is considered to have reduced trans fat consumption by some 80%, which industry lobbies predictably claimed they were already working to achieve on their own, and similar restrictions were enacted in California, Cleveland, and Philadelphia (4).

If a parallel is to be found between meat consumption and the history of smoking, then perhaps with the WHO warning, we're now at a point analogous to the first Surgeon General's warning on smoking in 1964, and the knowledge among an informed minority of the populace, not yet widely sanctioned by official bodies, recognizing the dangers in the meat industry.

Indeed, the presence of benzoates, nitrates, carbon monoxide, heavy metals, growth hormones, and other additives and treatments, banned or regulated in other countries, but widely used in meat production in the USA, has been cited with concern by activists for years, who also point to the abject living conditions of cattle and other animals subjected to industrial farming (5). Meanwhile, tacit recognition in official circles has been limited to scientific papers. Note, for example, "The Chemical Jungle: today's beef industry", published in 1990 by S. Epstein. As Mr. Epstein noted at the time,

"In the absence of effective federal regulation, the meat industry uses hundreds of animal feed additives, including antibiotics, tranquilizers, pesticides, animal drugs, artificial flavors, industrial wastes, and growth-promoting hormones, with little or no concern about the carcinogenic and other toxic effects of dietary residues of these additives" (6).

From a legal standpoint, reports like this, coupled with the present WHO warning, constitute a move beyond circumstantial evidence in instances such as the friend who returns to an omnivorous diet and becomes ill after years as a vegetarian, or the smoker who (in light of what was known in the late `50s) develops cancer after a pack a day for 20 years.

The Battle Against Big Beef

Grady Carter, who won his landmark lawsuit against Brown&Williamson in 1996, as noted earlier, was prompted in part by seeing tobacco company executives testify before congress in televised hearings on matters that had been known to an informed minority for decades, but not to the majority of tobacco customers - whether through honest ignorance, or the indisputable efforts of tobacco companies to keep the discussion out of the public sphere.

One wonders under what circumstances we might see the political impetus to have televised hearings into the public health implications of industrial meat production, with meat industry executives confronted with long overlooked, but mounting, scientific evidence. Or more likely, how long before we see the first lawsuits filed by an informed populace recognizing that their mysterious health problems have very clear sources.

In 2009, the nonprofit Cancer Project filed suit to have warning labels on hot dog packaging. As reported in the LA Times (7):

"An American Institute for Cancer Research report cited in the lawsuit notes that one 50-gram serving of processed meat -- about the amount in one hot dog -- consumed daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer 21% on average. Colorectal cancer kills about 50,000 Americans annually."

The article next cites a 2004 Harvard study denying any link between meat and cancer, particularly interesting in light of the present WHO warning, and perhaps analogous to the counterfactual research put forward by the tobacco industry during their decades long campaign to suppress information about the true risks of smoking.

Though the Cancer Project suit appears not to have met with success, the idea may have found momentum with the WHO warning. As of this writing, a news report indicates California is considering adding meats named in the warning to its Proposition 65 list of known carcinogens, requiring warning labels (8)

The setting of targets by the CDC, which saw a 23% decline in smoking in the course of a decade, if numbers can be believed, points to the possibility of affecting the same change with meat consumption. Even more so in view of the 40% decline that occurred in the decade and a half following the Surgeon General's warning of 1964. Could meat consumption one day be reduced to 42% of the population, where smoking stood in 1965? Or 25%, where smoking stood in 1990? At such levels, punitive insurance premiums (assuming the current health insurance regime survives in some form) become a working possibility, as currently paid by smokers, which could help to further reduce and stabilize meat consumption, along with higher taxes, as with cigarettes.

Just as scientific scrutiny and leaked industry documents provided a solid basis for legal campaigns against the cigarette industry, we may now be seeing the beginnings of a similar shift taking shape against the meat industry. The example of the battle for justice in the case of cigarette smokers - which began with lone attorneys supported by scarce scientific evidence waging lone battles against the odds of a nearly insurmountable industry, followed by tacit acknowledgement in the form of the Surgeon General's warning, then the active involvement of the Centers for Disease Control and the Supreme Court, and a quick turn of the table in the legal battle leading to the collapse of the industry shows a clear model for how the battle with the meat industry could play out over the coming decades.

1. Health Behaviors of Adults: United States 2008-2010, report published by US Dept. of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control, pp. 1, 21,, and other sources

2. see a comprehensive timeline of events at:

3. Information is available in various CDC reports, but the best compilation found during writing was:


5. see for example: