Nerd fight.Put ‘em up, Pepsi.Food-reform advocates like to stick to the facts, believing that if they can just construct a rational, air-tight argument, they’ll convince the public and transform policy around food. But that’s a bit like bringing a butter knife to a sword fight. As Robert K. Ross, president and CEO of the California Endowment, declared at the May 4 Future of Food conference in Washington D.C., “We need to bring as much rigor to the fight [for a healthy, sustainable food system] as we have to the science.” (Hat tip to Marion Nestle for highlighting Dr. Ross’ speech in her blog, Food Politics.)

The world of public health and its funders can be very genteel. When a policy like the soda tax fails to get enacted due to strong, well-financed opposition from industry, public health advocates want more science. They often believe that the new data collected, the indisputable conclusions drawn, or the attendant policy recommendations will finally convince policymakers and the public to take action. But, as Ross pointed out, if you think you are in a policy debate and the other side thinks it is in a fight, you are not going to come out too well. And so far in this food fight, public health is pretty bruised and battered.

The reality is, that when up against deep-pocketed, no-holds-barred opponents, like Big Food, Big Beverage, and Big Agriculture, public health’s focus on science and evidence is easily trumped by money and messaging. If public health advocates don’t start rolling up their sleeves and using some of the same tactics used by industry, progress in this fight to create a safe, healthy, sustainable food system is going to move more slowly than a teenager asked to clean his room. Science and “being right” are no substitute for a strong, strategic, and powerful movement. Public health groups and their funders must find ways to pool resources and utilize costly professional advocacy marketing, PR, and grassroots movement development. Sweeping policy change can only be driven by a powerful professional messaging campaign and a grassroots movement.

Industry hires the top messaging agencies and consultants, and devotes big money to framing their messages and imposing that frame on us. Witness the millions (certainly well over $100 million) Coke, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper/Snapple, et al., have spent on a nationwide campaign to fight soda taxes. In New York state alone, the soft drink industry spent nearly $13 million in just the first six months of 2010 to successfully fend off a penny per ounce soda tax. What did that money buy? A slick, professional ad campaign that was created by the same advocacy marketing firm that brought us the infamous “Harry and Louise.” And what were public health professionals doing to convince legislators and the public that a soda tax was necessary for the health of consumers? They were distributing fact sheets filled with meticulously researched statistics and dozens of studies that have identified sugary drinks as a leading cause of our obesity epidemic — ammunition which fell flat compared to Big Beverage’s professional and misleading messaging campaign.

Studies and evidence get steamrollered by marketing, messaging, and deft public relations. While good science should be the basis of any public health campaign, it can’t be the only strategy. Ross’ fine speech should act as a wake-up call to the entire public health community and our funders. I propose that a public health conference called “How to Fight Industry at Its Own Game” be organized in order to change the way public health advocates, professionals, and their funders view their responsibilities and teach them some of the tactics they need to win. We must fight fire with fire. Let’s light the match!