For many years, tobacco companies were able to maintain a strong pro-tobacco façade. Smoking focuses the mind. It's good for you (doctors smoke!). It's great for weight loss. It's sexy. It's cool. The tobacco industry spent big bucks to keep these ideas in the mind of the public for as long as it could.
And for many years after the lethal effects were universally known and undeniable, some of our nation's smartest and most successful businessmen continued to believe, because it was in their interest to believe, that "nicotine is not addictive." (Watch the seven most powerful tobacco executives of 1994 make exactly that statement, under oath, to Congress -- not even two decades ago.)
I was reminded of how far tobacco has fallen reading the New York Times magazine interview with perhaps the most successful screenplay writer in history, Joe Eszterhas, who has lost 80 percent of his larynx to tobacco, and has apologized for his glamorization of smoking in such films as Basic Instinct.
When I think about the effect of animal products on human health, I'm reminded of how quickly we've done a national about face on tobacco, and I look forward to the day when the Times magazine has a similar apology from someone who promoted animal products -- because the evidence is in and it continues to grow: Animal products kill a lot more Americans than tobacco does.
But much more important than the vegetarian community's general statistics are what can be done with the right vegetarian diet: For some years now, doctors have been not just preventing, but even reversing, heart disease using a low-fat vegetarian diet.
That's right -- the disease that kills almost as many Americans as everything else combined can be not just prevented, but reversed, with a low fat plant-based diet, as documented by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn in Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease.
There's a link from animal product consumption to our country's No. 2 killer, too: According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, about as much cancer could be prevented by diet and exercise as is caused by smoking -- and you know what's causing all that cancer? It's not whole grains, legumes, fruits, or vegetables. Dr. T. Colin Campbell has documented the link between cancer and animal products.
There's a lot of money in the meat industry, just like there's a lot of money in big tobacco. For many years, the tobacco establishment pointed to elderly smokers like George Burns and millions of others as proof that their very-natural product could not be harmful. Even long-distance runners and members of the military could be found smoking a cigarette at the end of a long run or intense drill.
Similarly, today the meat industry points to the fact that there are an awful lot of old meat-eaters, conveniently ignoring our sky-high heart disease and cancer rates, as well as our ballooning rates of obesity and diabetes, all of which are linked to their products.
Bill Clinton went on what he was told was a healthy diet after his emergency quadruple-bypass in 2004, and yet he didn't lose weight or feel better, and he required follow-up surgery in 2010. After that surgery, he was introduced to the work of Dr. Esselystyn and Dr. Campbell, and he went vegan -- which allowed him to lose 24 pounds in a year and feel better than ever, as he discusses with Wolf Blitzer on CNN.
Eszterhas wrote in his tobacco mea culpa, "My hands are bloody; so are Hollywood's. My cancer has caused me to attempt to cleanse mine. I don't wish my fate upon anyone in Hollywood, but I beg that Hollywood stop imposing it upon millions of others."
He could just as easily have been writing about animal foods, which is why I was delighted to read Mark Bittman's recent New York Times column in which he noted that meat consumption is down more than 10 percent since 2007. It seems that more and more people are catching on to the perils of animal foods.
In large part, that's thanks to the work of Doctors Esslestyn and Campbell, so I've also been delighted by the success of the film Forks Over Knives, an entertaining documentary that chronicles the success of their work. Ellen and Oprah have both plugged the movie, but perhaps even more importantly, Dr. Sanjay Gupta called Forks Over Knives "a great film," and Dr. Mehmet Oz said to his fans, "I loved it and I need all of you to see it."
It may be awhile before eating a chicken wing is seen, as it should be, as the heath equivalent of smoking a cigarette -- the meat industry is still more powerful than tobacco has ever been, and most of the medical establishment is not yet as nutrition-focused as progressive scientists and doctors like T. Colin Campbell and Dean Ornish.
But the best research clearly points in that direction, and more and more, I'm seeing cause for optimism.
The religious overlay that nutrition has taken on is neither holy nor wholesome. It precludes us from breaking bread together. It forestalls the public health progress that could occur if we could all find a seat at a common table.
Can eating meat be detrimental for your mood and mental health? Is there a reason that your vegetarian friend is so energetic and cheerful all the time? The latest nutrition research suggests there may be scientific validity to these observations.
Eating some meat, preferably from lean, well-fed, well-exercised, and kindly tended animals is assuredly consistent with human health. But the health of humans and the planet argue consistently for Michael Pollan's excellent and pithy advice: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.