Why Big Tech is harder to rein in than tobacco

Critics say the tech industry is having a “Big Tobacco moment,” but limiting harms caused by giant tech firms is likely to prove even trickier than reducing the toll of smoking.

One key difference is that Big Tobacco was a relatively stationary target, with the big companies all producing roughly the same product and doing so year after year.

By contrast, products from Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon and others differ widely from one another, as do the perceived harms. Meanwhile, the companies and their industry are all rapidly moving targets.

Driving the news: Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff has been comparing Facebook to the cigarette companies for quite a while.

Legislators have picked up on the analogy, including senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) at recent Facebook hearings. The New York Times notes that it took more than a decade to put significant regulations on tobacco companies, suggesting that those looking for quick changes in tech will be disappointed.

The big picture: There are clear parallels, including companies hiding and then downplaying internal research warning of their products’ harms.

Yes, but: Evidence that tobacco is highly addictive and toxic is overwhelming, whereas the case against Facebook and other tech companies is considerably murkier and more debatable.Also, the rapidly changing nature of tech products and companies means that lawmakers face the challenge of crafting new rules and laws that won’t quickly become obsolete.

The risk for would-be regulators is that much of today’s discussion in their circles is focused on social media platforms that are in a constant state of turnover.

Most of the discussion on the harms of social media to young people has focused on Facebook and Instagram, ignoring young people’s flight to other services, such as TikTok, as Evelyn Douek argues in The Atlantic.

Of note: An analysis by Blair Levin of New Street Research points out that litigation drove the campaign against tobacco.

“While we have been skeptical that past revelations would lead to government action, we think this time is different and as a result, we think Facebook may now face a similar challenge from increased litigation as tobacco, or more recently, OxyContin,” Levin writes.

What to watch: Legislators and regulators will have to find consensus not just on which companies are causing problems, but also on what exactly the harms are and how to reduce them.

Many Democrats and Republicans are raising big beefs with Facebook, as well as Amazon, Google and others.But they’re often focused on different things — with most Republicans, for instance, zeroing in on allegations of anti-conservative bias.And even where they agree on the problem, their solutions are all over the map, from fines to structural changes to legislation to breaking companies up.

The bottom line: Despite “Big Tobacco moments” and ensuing regulation and restriction, tobacco smoking still causes 480,000 U.S. deaths each year, per the FDA.

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