Should sugar be controlled like alcohol and tobacco? That’s what a group of researchers from the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) seem to think.
Drs. Robert Lustig, Laura Schmidt, and Claire Brindis argue that sugar’s potential for “abuse,” coupled with its “toxicity and pervasiveness in the Western diet,” make it a primary culprit in a worldwide health crisis, according to the UCSF website.
“We are in the midst of the biggest public health crisis in the history of the world,” Dr. Lustig said. “And nobody even gets it. Nobody understands how important this is because they don’t consider it 'public health.' They consider it 'personal responsibility.'”
They argue that the health hazards associated with sugar consumption are similar to those of alcohol -- which they note is made from distilling sugar.
And although some researchers have already pointed out that worldwide consumption of sugar has tripled during the past 50 years, therefore possibly leading to an “obesity epidemic,” Drs. Lustig, Schmidt, and Brindis believe that obesity is just one possible symptom of sugar's toxicity, which goes further than simply being high in calories.
Watch Drs. Lustig, Schmidt, and Brindis discuss their research via UCSFPublicAffairs:
“As long as the public thinks that sugar is just 'empty calories,' we have no chance in solving this,” Dr. Lustig said, according to the The Daily Mail.
"There are good calories and bad calories, just as there are good fats and bad fats, good amino acids and bad amino acids, good carbohydrates and bad carbohydrates,” he added, “But sugar is toxic beyond its calories.”
They argue that sugar contributes to 35 million deaths each year from illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Therefore, they argue, curbing the consumption of sugar could potentially save millions of dollars each year.
“There is an enormous gap between what we know from science and what we practice in reality,” Dr. Schmidt said, “In order to move the health needle, this issue needs to be recognized as a fundamental concern at the global level.”
Dr. Brindis said that the public needs to be better informed about the dangers of sugar with a "wide approach" similar to that seen with tobacco and alcohol, the Daily Mail reports.
What kind of "wide approach"?
They suggest levying special sales taxes, controlling access, and "tightening licensing requirements" on vending machines and snack bars that sell high sugar products in schools and workplaces.
“We're not talking prohibition. We're not advocating a major imposition of the government into people's lives,” Dr. Schmidt said.
“We're talking about gentle ways to make sugar consumption slightly less convenient, thereby moving people away from the concentrated dose. What we want is to actually increase people's choices by making foods that aren't loaded with sugar comparatively easier and cheaper to get,” she said.
In a UCSFPublicAffairs YouTube video, Dr. Lustig flirts with the idea of taxing the desire out of consumers and compares it to the government's approach to cigarettes.
“No one’s really talking about how much tax will it take to reduce consumption,” Ludstig said, “We saw this with cigarettes. We basically had to raise the price of a pack up to $11 in New York City to get people to actually stop smoking. And they finally decided: ‘You know what? The craving just isn’t worth it.”
“So the question is how much taxation would you have to do to a can of soda to get somebody to say ‘You know? I really don’t need to do that’?” Lustig asked.
Dr. Lustig argues that although no one is prepared for a cigarette-style tax increase on soda today, we may see that type of action taken tomorrow.
"There have been a lot of other public health campaigns, which initially seemed to be very radical, but today they seem extremely mainstream," Dr. Brindis said.