Sugar. Some public health experts say it can be as addictive as cocaine; increases the risk of cancer; is a chief cause of obesity, heart disease and diabetes; and is also key contributor to deteriorating oral health around the world. Yet, instead of working to reduce sugar consumption, critics say big brands including Coca-Cola and PepsiCo instead have been planning to increase marketing of sugary products in emerging markets, which some health experts say is potentially putting the health of millions at risk.
That’s according to a report by NPR that highlights the role of sugar in an emerging global cavities epidemic. The report’s authors referenced a recent study published in The Lancet Journal, in which researchers found that most dentistry focuses more on treatment than prevention.
“Many lose sight of the fact that sugar consumption remains the primary cause of disease development," said Professor Richard Watt, a chair in Dental Public Health at University College London, in a press statement. "We need tighter regulation and legislation to restrict marketing and influence of the [sugar industry], if we are to tackle the root causes of oral conditions."
While it is not often considered in the same category as the oil, pharmaceutical or tobacco industries, the sugar industry is a behemoth in its own right. It is a multibillion-dollar industry that is seeing significant growth and fighting tooth and nail to prevent public health officials from reducing sugar consumption.
Case in point: California. When cities including San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland passed taxes on highly sweetened beverages—and saw consumption drop—sugar lobbyists went into action. Last year, they succeeded in getting an amendment added to the state budget that prohibited any other California cities from passing similar taxes until 2030.
“With a growing number of communities from coast to coast recognizing the health and economic benefits these taxes provide, the beverage industry is now resorting to backroom deals and underhanded efforts to preserve its profits,” said more than 20 health and justice nonprofits in a joint statement in response to the ban.
This follows a long trend of the sugar industry using tactics straight from the playbook of big oil and big tobacco to misinform the public when it comes to sugar-related health risks. More than 50 years ago, they were already paying scientists to produce industry-friendly research, and they played a role in the anti-fat diet fads of the 1990s and 2000s, shifting the blame of obesity to other food products.
In the past few years, though, a movement has emerged, led by nutrition scientists and doctors, to re-introduce science-based facts and stem the power of sugar. There’s increasing research linking sugar to a whole host of health issues, campaigns targeting the industry, and documentaries educating the public about sugar and the industry behind it.
There’s hope in California, too. Earlier this month, in response to the ban, the California Medical Association and the California Dental Association filed a 2020 ballot measure that would, if successful, implement a statewide tax on sugary drinks. While it's likely that the sugar industry will spend millions to try to prevent the bill’s passage, they tried that in the Bay Area and elsewhere where bans have been proposed and have mostly failed.
“California’s health care provider community is united behind ensuring that California voters have the opportunity to protect our children’s well-being—not the profit margins of soda conglomerates,” the initiative’s backers said in a press statement.
Global food and beverage companies should take note. Knowingly selling a product that harms public health is irresponsible. The tobacco industry did this for decades and paid dearly for it. Sugar is just as addictive, and potentially as harmful. It’s time for companies to cut back on sugar and sell healthier alternatives, and if they don’t do it themselves, voters and public officials may make them pay.
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