Is Sugar as Addictive as Tobacco?

Some want to make sugar less available to you on these grounds, but where does personal choice come into play?

By: Liana Crocco

Discussions about the impacts of sugar upon health have been enjoying their share of the media spotlight recently, especially in relation to concerns about rising obesity rates in America.

Some have reason to believe sugar is largely responsible for the nation’s health problems and have suggested controversial solutions to the battle of the bulge; namely, making sugar less available to the general public.

However, some wonder whether such regulations infringe too heavily on the expression of personal freedom.

New York City Mayor Bloomberg doesn’t seem to think so. He recently proposed a city wide ban on the sale of soda and other sweetened drinks in containers larger than 16 ounces at restaurants, movies theaters, food carts and ball parks.

Characterizing his plan as an effort to “encourage people to live longer”, the mayor explains that the ban is motivated by concerns about increasing obesity rates.

The proposal has attracted its share of supporters; many feel the ban will impact the health of those affected in a positive way because it will force the consumer to think twice about buying a second drink and consuming more sugar.

Conversely, detractors believe the ban restricts personal choice to an unacceptable degree. Bloomberg has countered such “Nanny State” accusations by emphasizing that the proposal would not prohibit individuals from purchasing 32 ounce bottles of soda from grocery stores, nor would the ban prevent customers from purchasing multiple 16 ounce soda containers from other venues.

As a result of the media frenzy generated by such debates, sugar and sugary drinks have recently become Public Enemy #1, but some feel the soda industry is being unjustly targeted and is not primarily responsible for the nation’s struggle with obesity.

For example, Karen Hanretty, Vice President of Public Affairs for the American Beverage Association (ABA), told CNN the following: “Soda consumption has declined, even as obesity has increased. To say that sugar is solely responsible for obesity doesn’t make sense.”

Major soda companies also try to quell health concerns about their product through corporate social responsibility campaigns (CSR’s), according to media and public health experts writing in the journal PLoS Medicine.

Examples of such campaigns include the Pepsi Refresh project: in 2010, Pepsi launched a social media campaign that sought consumer ideas for worthy causes, and then donated $20 million to the projects that received the greatest number of votes each month.

Similarly, Coca Cola’s Live Positively Campaign promoted healthy lifestyles among consumers with educational slogans and encouraged customers to support charitable projects.

Such campaigns have garnered their share of backlash; critics believe that worthy causes are being allied with a particular soda so that the company can dodge health concerns about their drink.

[pullquote]“Soda consumption has declined, even as obesity has increased. To say that sugar is solely responsible for obesity doesn’t make sense.”[/pullquote]

Some researchers examining CSR initiatives argue that such campaigns are comparable to tactics employed by the tobacco industry in the 1950’s to sell their product.

Further, numerous researchers argue that the harms of sugary beverages are similar to those of cigarettes. “Emerging science on the addictiveness of sugar, especially when combined with the known addictive properties of caffeine found in many sugary beverages, should further heighten awareness of the product’s public health threat similar to the understanding about the addictiveness of tobacco products,” they write.

For their part, the American Beverage Association contends:  “There is simply no comparison between soda and tobacco — not among our products, nor our business practices.”

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