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.

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