Smoking and Overeating: The Differences

We have looked at some of the commonalities shared by smoking and overeating, in terms of both impact on the individual and societal reverberations. Many people support the idea of government action to resist the obesity epidemic, and are heartened by the incomplete but rather startling effectiveness of tobacco suppression. Professionals who deal with obesity are very interested in how people quit smoking, because therapeutic interventions found to be successful in that area might be transferrable.

In many ways, however, smoking and overeating are not alike. There is a major, inborn difference between tobacco inhalation and food ingestion. Small children are instinctively repelled by smoking, and teenagers generally have to force themselves through initial disgust. But generally, people do not need to train themselves to enjoy food. Right from Day One, beginning with sweet, warm milk, everybody likes to eat.

Another difference is that while “society” finds it easy to blame and hate smokers, on the food side we tend to direct animosity toward the manufacturers and advertisers who work so hard to make kids demand junk food. It seems that a large proportion of the public is offended when corporate interests mess with the vulnerable minds of children.

John Pierce is the behavioral epidemiologist who went to war against the goofily lovable (and thus child-friendly) advertising icon Joe Camel. He is in agreement with many others who call smoking reduction a gigantic public health success story, and recommends using its lessons as a playbook in the efforts to end obesity.

In the tobacco intervention sector, much energy is devoted to stopping teens from ever taking up the smoking habit. The authors of The Health Impact of Smoking and Obesity and What to Do About It suggest a parallel, and point out why no parallel can be exact:

The natural comparison is the prevention of weight gain in the first place, and especially in the context of children… Unlike using tobacco, healthy eating and physical activity are important to child development, making controlling weight more complicated.

An important difference that is named in “Possible lessons from the tobacco experience for obesity control” still holds true 15 years later:

Whereas pharmacotherapy is recommended for all users of tobacco regardless of amount smoked, the risks and benefits of pharmacotherapy for obesity are related to body mass index (BMI), so there is no comparable approach for obesity intervention.

Then, there is the huge, yawning difference that we hear echoed so often: People can live without nicotine, but they can’t live without food. Consequently, overeating requires a great deal more ingenuity to beat. Kicking an addiction has been compared to getting a divorce.

With alcohol, nicotine, heroin and many other substances, it’s like a divorce without kids. You can just say “We’re done” and never have to see the person again. But if you have procreated, you have to deal with shared custody and child support and holiday visits and mutual grandkids, and so on. You’re tied to your ex forever, and that’s how it is with food.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “The Foodservice Industry’s Social Responsibility Regarding the Obesity Epidemic, Part I:,”, 2010
Source: “Fighting Obesity: What We Learned From The Battle On Smoking,”, 06/09/17
Source: “The Health Impact of Smoking and Obesity and What to Do About It,”, 2007
Source: “Possible lessons from the tobacco experience for obesity control,”, April 2003
Photo credit: Joe Haupt (France1978) on Visualhunt/CC BY

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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