Sugar: The New Tobacco

Written by:

Carol Liang, MPH candidate 2017

You’ve heard it. You know it. But you probably don’t want to admit it. The loved substance, sugar, is the new trans fat in society; it is the poison to our meals. We’re all in denial from facing our beloved sweet tooth. In fact, most of America needs to go to sugar rehab for an addiction more dangerous than understood.

When we eat sugar, our body releases dopamine, which is associated to reward-motivated behavior. This is similar to the way drugs work; according to a number of studies on the brain, sugar is as addictive as cocaine. It involves constantly craving more to satisfy the body’s reward system. Excessive dependency on sugar is especially true in America: the American Heart Association recommends no more that 9.5 teaspoons for adults per day, yet the average person consumes 22 teaspoons.

More needs to be done to prevent the children of today from fueling the adult obesity epidemic in the United States, where one-third of adults are now diagnosed as obese. Communal weight gain in children can be attributed to refined sugars in food and drinks, which are all too common in their diets. Today, 25% of children aged 2 to 5 are overweight or obese. Recently, the CDC warned mothers to start reading toddler food labels, as they found that 35% of child food products are above the Institute of Medicine’s sugar guidelines. In 2009, children aged 1 to 3 had an average sugar intake of 12 teaspoons per day, 3 to 4 times higher than the suggested limit for children their age.

Sugar is known to be the classic “bad” treat; however, the magnitude of the risks involved need to be stressed. You probably know what the risks are: obesity, type 2 diabetes, stroke, heart disease and cancer.  But did you know women with the highest blood sugar levels have a 26% higher chance of getting cancer than those with the lowest levels? Or people whose daily diets comprise of 25% sugar are twice as likely to die from heart disease than those whose diets contain less than 10% sugar?

The main source of sugar, sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) — soda, juice, sport beverages etc.— are of most concern. A can of coca cola alone contains 39 grams of sugar — 14 grams above the WHO’s recommended daily sugar intake. Every day, half of the American population drinks at least one sugary drink.  SSBs, alone, are responsible for 25,000 deaths per year in America.

So, what can we do to decrease sugar intake and eradicate the obesity epidemic? Education about the risks of sugar is essential, but not sufficient. In February 2015, Michael Bloomberg’s 2012 failed plan to tax sugary drinks in New York was reintroduced by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory committee, who followed in his footsteps and proposed for federal taxes on sodas. This could essentially save the lives of millions.

While some might argue it is an individual’s right to choose what to eat and drink, it is the government’s moral responsibility to protect fellow citizens from the now known health risks. There is also an ongoing debate about the economic downfalls of enforcing taxes on SSBs, especially for large soda corporations. Though, actions such as placing warning labels on products, banning large soda sizes, and implementing taxes would decrease rates of obesity, heart disease, strokes etc., and hence, prevent future economic burdens in healthcare.

Given both high sugar intake and smoking are contributors to cancer and heart disease — the 2 leading causes of deaths in the United States — it is questionable why high sugar products have no state or federal regulations and taxes, unlike cigarettes. Berkeley recently passed a law taxing all sugary drinks; cities should follow to highlight the degree of risks linked to sugar consumption. It is time we stop categorizing sugar as a guilty pleasure, and instead, start treating it as the new tobacco.

While a cold soda on a hot summer day, a slice of pumpkin pie over Thanksgiving, or a sugar cookie at Christmas is always a treat; always remember the potential long-term risks involved are certainly not sweet.



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