Should The Government Regulate Sugar Like Tobacco?

It has many of the same qualities as heavily controlled substances, but we freely add it to everything (it’s even on the FDA’s list of things that you can safely add to any food, in any amount). Is it time to put the sugary snacks behind the counter at the corner store?

Sugar has a lot in common with tobacco and alcohol: it triggers pleasurable feelings, it can cause health problems when overused, and it’s addictive (though the jury may still be out on that one). Unlike the latter two substances, sugar products don’t come with added taxes or any barrier to obtaining them. Anyone can legally binge on sugar, regardless of age. But maybe this shouldn’t be the case. Maybe we’d all be better off if sugar was treated like a potentially dangerous substance.

Image by FAO

Scientists at UCSF argue in a recent issue of Nature that added sugars, defined as "any sweetener containing the molecule fructose that is added to food in processing," should be regulated by the government. The researchers, one of whom is well-known for his views on the dangers of sugar, have come up with a convincing list of reasons why we need to take serious measures:

  • Sugar can induce hypertension, insulin resistance, high triglycerides, diabetes, and potentially liver problems that mimic the effects of alcohol.
  • Like tobacco and alcohol, sugar has a negative impact on society. The U.S. shells out $150 billion on health care and $65 billion in lost productivity each year because of health issues associated with metabolic syndrome, a group of diseases including diabetes, hypertension, lipid problems, and cardiovascular disease. A striking 25% of military applicants are now rejected because of obesity.
  • Sugar has become unavoidable. Added sugar (non-naturally occurring sugar) consumption has tripled worldwide over the past 50 years. This is not a good thing—in many areas of the world, people consume 500 calories a day from added sugars alone.
  • Sugar can be abused. It dampens the suppression of ghrelin (a hormone that signals hunger to the brain), and scrambles signals and transport of leptin, a hormone that produces a feeling of fullness. Sugar also cuts down on dopamine signaling, leading to a decrease in pleasure from food consumption. That compels people to eat even more.

You can’t talk about a food product without a meddlesome trade association getting involved. In this case, the Sugar Association has issued a statement about the Nature piece. The group claims that the obesity epidemic has grown as sugar and beet consumption have decreased, and that consumption of the sweetener over the past 50 years has not increased as drastically as claimed.

"There is an obesity problem in our country that can lead to the very serious health issues mentioned in the comment—but it originates from the combination of overconsumption of all foods and lack of exercise," the organization writes. "To label a single food as the one and only problem misinforms, misleads and confuses consumers, and simply adds to the problem."

That last point has some merit. Oftentimes, the kinds of foods that contain large amounts of added sugars—the packaged snack foods that so many people eat throughout the day—aren’t exactly healthy to begin with. So why focus on just one potentially harmful ingredient?

The answer is that sugar is stealthy. It’s added to bread, seemingly healthy cereals, and other processed foods that might not automatically be filed under the "junk food" category. Even the most diligent consumers will be walloped with a sugar sneak attack every once in awhile.

So the UCSF researchers argue that sugar needs to be strongly regulated. Among their suggestions: impose a sugar tax, limit sales during school hours, don’t allow children to buy sugary drinks, remove soft drinks from the food stamp program, and cut fructose from the FDA’s Generally Regarded as Safe list of ingredients that can be added in unlimited amounts to foods.

These are decent ideas in theory. But whether any of them could survive lobbying by the numerous trade industries that want us to eat boatloads of sugar—as well as protesting from sugar-loving consumers—is doubtful.

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  • Mike Grinberg

    Yes, sugar is bad for you, but so are large amounts of carbs, so should the government tax cereals, breads, rice etc.? NO
    Government shouldn't regulate sugar, but people should be
    educated on the dangers of it, just like smoking, alcohol, etc.
    People should have to take responsibility for their own
    actions - if you want to eat sugary junk food, knowing full well the possible
    side effects, then have fun with your diabetes

  • DeAnne

    Yes sugar can be insidious when added to foods by food companies to keep us addicted or
    eating more.  So a regulation of the amount of sugar added may help with that.  The biggest
    culprit in the rise of disease, however, is corn syrup.  Specifically high-fructose corn syrup.
    If the FDA listed this as a toxic substance no longer allowed in food or drink, our obesity
    problem and type II diabetes would be drastically reduced.  That's as far as the government
    should be involved in this matter in my opinion.

  • Peg Duncan

    More accurately - not all that is being proposed has to be adopted to change behavior. Removing it from the food stamp program isn't a bad idea either. These changes would reduce government's role in sugar consumption.

  • Peg Duncan

    Commentators seem concerned that government would be regulating people's diets, but what is being proposed is different. Ceasing to subsidize corn and removing fructose from the GRAS list would make sugar less ubiquitous and more expensive, and that might just be enough to change behavior.

  • Yalis Reaper

    I do think over consumption is a problem we face in our society, but asking the government to intervene and regulate is the wrong approach. The government should get out of the big brother business.  I especially wouldn't want them to get an additonal foot hold on deciding what foods I can choose to eat. Let's get the government to spend that same money they would spend on regulatory apparatus on education and amateur sports.  

  • betteridgeslaw

    Betteridge's law activated: no and yes.

    As hinted below, the first best solution we need is to eliminate the agricultural subsidies that beget cheap sugar. Furthermore, regulatory capture is always concerning, especially when it's uniquely targeted to just one bad.

    But I don't agree with other commentators that a sugar tax is anything like a police state. It's an attempt to use a market mechanism to internalize the added costs of sugar. However, I don't think narrow implementation (ie, targeting sugar vs. other junk foods) will have the desired effect. I like accounting for externalities (in this case, the health costs of sugar), but I don't see this as a robust move in that direction.

  • DBthoughts

    Don't forget that the government subsidizes corn, and high fructose corn syrup is a major source of sugar. As a result, the government has, in effect, been regulating the consumption of sugar all along.

  • JimK

    It is sure folly for any government to try to legislate
    human behavior. It is impossible to legislate against stupidity,
    irresponsibility, impulsiveness, compulsiveness and other forms of behavior. That
    is further compounded by the cost of using government intervention to
    legislatively impose someone's good intentions on someone else. Why not let
    nature be the regulator that allows people to enjoy the consequences of their
    decisions - good or bad? Someone who chooses a bad diet, smokes, gets no exercise
    will be a bad health risk with sky-high insurance premiums, and the people who
    make good decisions have no obligation to subsidize poor decisions. As a rule,
    bad decision makers will die younger than people that make good decisions.
    While that may sound cruel to some people, let's face reality that most of us
    learn from our own experiences and the experiences of people close to us.
    Government intervention (despite its good intentions) tends to cheat us by
    spending fortunes on imaginary safety nets to save us from failing.  We need less government, not more.

  • Catcha

    If a diet with all the sugar is a significant part of the obesity issues in the country and the overall health care bill raises for everyone in the insurance pool should someone be allowed to raise my health insurance costs, my freedom? Just another way to frame the freedom issue.

  • BradW

    At what point does the government telling us what we can and can't eat become excessive? I think there is a big problem in this country with sugar consumption but creating a police state to tell people what to eat isn't going to fix it, everyone will just find another fix.

    The solution is education and exercise. If you want to stop the obesity trend, put people back to work in jobs where they're standing up and using their hands and put PE back in schools as a required class every semester with standards for all kids to meet just like any grade. Colleges should also require a one hour credit physical class every semester for full time students for undergrad and employers should reward healthy behavior.

    Solve the problem from the bottom up, not the top down. Regulation will not get us any closer to becoming healthy again.

  • European

    The government shouldn't tell people what to eat. But if a substance is addictive - which sugar certainly is -  then I agree with placing warnings on all sugary foods.

    Sugar is liberally added to almost all foods. You need to read labels, choose carefully and sometimes pay a dietitian to help you basically avoiding most foods in a supermarket. Is this normal, to go shopping for food and have to avoid 3/4 of goods labelled "food" becaouse they actually harm your health?

    People know more about caring for their cars and pets than about caring for their own bodies.