Researchers call for tax on sugar

Some researchers advocate regulations for sugar similar to those governing alcohol.
Some researchers advocate regulations for sugar similar to those governing alcohol. Photo by Creative Commons.

Some researchers believe it is time to impose legal limits on sugar, similar to those on alcohol and tobacco.

In a article published Feb. 1 in the journal Nature, three researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, argue that the harmful effects of sugar extend far beyond its calorie count. To reduce national sugar consumption, the government should regulate it the way it regulates alcohol and tobacco, said Robert Lustig, director of the Weight Assessment for Teen and Child Health program at UCSF and one of the article’s co-authors. .

“Sugar meets the same criteria that alcohol and tobacco meet in terms of societal intervention,” Lustig said. “Every chronic disease we’ve got is exacerbated, if not brought on, by sugar consumption.”

Lustig said there are four factors that make sugar eligible for government regulations: its unavoidability, its toxicity, its addictiveness and its negative effects on the rest of society.

Sugars are so prevalent in daily life that people have no choice but to consume them, Lustig said. This risk is compounded by sugar’s tendency to cause users to develop liver fat, leading to chronic diseases such as hypertension and heart disease. Lustig added that early data suggests liver fat could contribute to the development of cancer.

In addition, sugar is an addictive substance, he said. Sugar creates a “positive feedback cycle” in the brain, which keeps the consumer coming back for more. Lustig added that this cycle impacts not just the user, but also his peers, much as how secondhand smoke has negative effects on nonsmokers. Sugar consumption leads to chronic diseases, which imposes high health care costs on all members of society, Lustig said.

Lustig said these attributes of sugar have made it difficult for purely educational efforts to get people to cut back their intake, just as education is ineffective in addressing tobacco and alcohol abuse. Lustig called for the federal government to become involved in the regulation of sugar, possibly through taxation, as Brownell has been publicly advocating.

Lustig described Kelly Brownell, director of Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, as one of the most influential figures in the movement to regulate sugar.

“Dr. Brownell has been on the forefront of identifying the role of dietary changes in the promulgation of the obesity epidemic,” Lustig said. He has been instrumental in showing that sugar-sweetened beverages correlate with obesity nationwide … [and] made the effective argument for societal intervention, with one method being taxation for generation of money for programs.”

In October, the Rudd Center, led by Brownell, released a report detailing the marketing of sugary drinks to youth, especially minority youths. The report was the third in a series of research projects the Rudd Center has conducted regarding the effects of food industry marketing on youth. The first study, in 2009, detailed harmful effects of sugar in children’s cereals, and the second, in 2010, criticized the fast food industry for false claims that industry giants were cutting down on their advertisements to children.

The Rudd Center’s director of marketing initiatives, Jennifer Harris GRD ’08, told the News in November that the ultimate goal of such studies was to provoke a change in food industry regulations and marketing practices involving sugary products.

“Adding a penny-per-ounce tax on any beverage with added sugar could not only help reduce obesity and its accompanying high health care costs, but would also generate much-needed revenue,” Brownell wrote in an October Time Magazine article. “The projected benefits estimated by economists are impressive: 10- to 23-percent reduced consumption, and $50 billion in health care savings and $150 billion in revenue over 10 years.” Brownell could not be reached for comment.

Lustig said that current financial concerns were making made these unprecedented regulations necessary for the first. He said $147 billion is spent each year in therapy for chronic diseases, 75 percent of which can be blamed directly on sugar.

Lustig suggested two other possibilities to regulate sugar: access limitation and age restrictions, similar to the restrictions on alcohol. He said that these kinds of regulations, in addition to taxation, have been much more effective in limiting tobacco and alcohol use than educational campaigns about the harm they cause.

Researchers interviewed had mixed feelings about the feasibility of governmental regulations on sugar. Roger Cone, director of the Vanderbilt University Institute for Obesity and Metabolism, said some foods might be easier to regulate than others.

“It would be pretty hard to regulate fruits and starchy vegetables,” Cone said. “On the other hand, the government could gradually phase out the subsidies that have pushed down the cost of corn-based sweeteners.”

Benjamin Land, a postdoctoral fellow in psychiatry at Yale, said that, if regulations are enacted, they should include fructose, which is often included in sugary drinks. Lustig, much of whose research has been directed at demonstrating the harms associated with fructose, agreed.

Currently, 33 states have a sales tax on sugary beverages, while six impose excise taxes in addition to a sales tax.


  • Robbie

    Love the subhead.

  • ldffly

    This stuff makes me wish S.I. Hayakawa would come back to retake UC San Francisco.

  • RexMottram08

    Scientists have no special insight into this issue. This is a political, ethical, moral matter about which reasonable people of good will can and do disagree.

    Dressing up in a lab coat does not give you any special insight into the nature of those discussions.

    (And they even get the science wrong: sugar is NOT addictive)

    • khymos

      “Sugar also has clear potential for abuse. Like tobacco and alcohol, it acts on the brain to encourage subsequent intake. There are now numerous studies examining the dependence-producing properties of sugar in humans. Specifically, sugar dampens the suppression of the hormone ghrelin, which signals hunger to the brain. It also interferes with the normal transport and signalling of the hormone leptin, which helps to produce the feeling of satiety. And it reduces dopamine signalling in the brain’s reward centre, thereby decreasing the pleasure derived from food and compelling the individual to consume more.”

      Did you even read the original publication? Perhaps you did, but did not understand how the above paragraph relates to sugar being addictive – dressing up in a lab coat might aid your comprehension. This is why the opinions of “reasonable people of good will”, of which I’m sure you count yourself, should not be considered in policy making.

      • RexMottram08

        None of that describes addiction.

        Throwing a bunch of technical terms on paper does not prove their point regarding sugar addiction.

        • Robbie

          But these researchers didn’t just write down a bunch of big words. They conducted and collaborated on studies and research that validate their arguments. If you want to dispute the findings, you have to do the same: point to some kind of hard evidence yourself, or sit down. You can’t just say, “this is clearly false because they talk all fancy.”

          • RexMottram08

            Because addiction is NOT a chemical issue. It’s an existential problem. It’s a moral problem.

            Chemical processes, even for drugs like heroin, are NOT so powerful that you are inescapably hooked, even after multiple uses (let alone the absurd idea that one dose can hook you).

            Addiction is moral weakness par excellence. Scientific processes have little contribute here and even less to add to a public policy debate on the merits of sugar.

            Lustig and Brownwell are part of the addiction bureaucracy that infantilizes “addicts” by treating their consumption decisions like a natural fact that is independent of human volition.

          • whatwhat

            You are clearly mistaken. addiction is DEFINITELY chemical problem. And yes chemical processes, even for drugs like heroin are so powerful that you are inescapably hooked, even after multiple uses. Try to read and understand the science behind addiction before you dismiss the science as “technical terms on paper.”

            And do you even have any sources to back your claims?

          • RexMottram08

            Chemical dependency is real but overblown. There is a wealth of information out of Britain’s NHS detailing that most addictive withdrawals are no worse than a common cold. (Sugar has no withdrawal symptoms).

            “Addiction” requiring government intervention in the lives of free people is NOT real. It’s pseudo-science used by social engineers.

          • whatwhat

            If you could post some of this information, that would be much appreciated? I can’t seem to find any. I did find:

            From Britain’s NHS website:

            Long term: Giving up cocaine and crack can be mentally distressing and physically difficult for dependent users.

            Heroin is psychologically and physically highly addictive. “The withdrawal from heroin is really unpleasant,” says Professor Nutt. “Long-term heroin users are often depressed because of their overall lifestyle.”

            Long term (for Valium): The body quickly gets used to benzodiazepines and soon needs more to get the same effect. It’s possible to become addicted in just a few weeks and withdrawal can be difficult and make people feel sick, unable to sleep and very anxious. Sudden withdrawal from high doses can be very dangerous and result in serious convulsions (fits).

            As for sugar, read pennylane’s article:
            “Professor Bart Hoebel and his team in the Department of Psychology and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute have been studying signs of sugar addiction in rats for years. Until now, the rats under study have met two of the three elements of addiction. They have demonstrated a behavioral pattern of increased intake and then showed signs of withdrawal.”

            “In experiments, the researchers have been able to induce signs of withdrawal in the lab animals by taking away their sugar supply. The rats’ brain levels of dopamine dropped and, as a result, they exhibited anxiety as a sign of withdrawal. The rats’ teeth chattered, and the creatures were unwilling to venture forth into the open arm of their maze, preferring to stay in a tunnel area. Normally rats like to explore their environment, but the rats in sugar withdrawal were too anxious to explore.”

          • Robbie

            If the argument is that humans have enough self-control to overcome dependence, and therefore that the government shouldn’t have to involve itself (essentially, the “man up” argument), then you’re either an incredibly strong-willed person or completely full of it. Thousands die every year from their inability to break their “overblown” dependence on dangerous substances, which should in itself merit government investigation. As for whether or not sugar creates strong enough dependence to merit actual regulation, the studies in this case seem to argue that it does.

            But beyond that, this entire line of discussion is one giant red herring. The reason that Lustig argues for sugar regulation lies primarily in health risks and the financial burdens they put on America. Addictiveness is just one of the criteria sugar needs to satisfy for regulation to become possible, rather than the entire reason that regulation is necessary. You’re essentially attacking red tape. Real regulations would come about on the strength of the 147 billion dollars spent every year on treating chronic diseases linked directly back to too much sugar, as this article, and the original piece, point out.

    • penny_lane

      Gotta do better than just saying the science is wrong.

  • basho

    I can control my sugar intake just fine, thanks

    • penny_lane

      I control my alcohol intake just fine, but I still have to pay a tax on it.

      • River_Tam

        You shouldn’t have to.

        • penny_lane

          I agree. But I’d rather pay taxes on potentially harmful substances (sugar, alcohol) than on things I buy, say books or clothes, that aren’t contributing to any public health crises. Taxes will always exist, and I’d rather they tax what it makes sense to tax.

          • River_Tam

            I’d rather not use taxes as policy tools.

        • yalie13

          You live in a society. Your fate is connected with everyone else’s. If you don’t pay the tax, you’ll have to pay for the otherwise avoidable higher health costs that come with treating the incredibly large number of obesity-related diseases. If it fights the obesity epidemic, then this tax is invaluable. And it’s not like the money is thrown out either. The $344 billion we annually spend on obesity-related diseases (21% of health care costs) that other nations do not spend is money and time we are essentially throwing out.

  • Quals

    Tax fat people. Problem solved

  • River_Tam

    Tax thyroid conditions.

  • MsMoneypenny

    Tax the air we breathe while you’re at it!

    I’ll eat as much sugar as I want!