Should the government regulate sugar, just like it regulates alcohol and tobacco?
A new commentary published online in the Feb. 1 issue of Nature says sugar is just as "toxic" for people as the other two, so the government should step in to curb its consumption.
The United Nations announced in September that chronic diseases like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes contribute to 35 million deaths worldwide each year, according to the commentary. The U.N. pegged tobacco, alcohol, and diet as big risk factors that contributed to this death rate.
Two of those are regulated by governments, "leaving one of the primary culprits behind this worldwide health crisis unchecked," the authors, Robert H. Lustig, Laura A. Schmidt and Claire D. Brindis, argued.
They said that over the past 50 years, sugar consumption has tripled worldwide. That's also helped contribute to the obesity epidemic - so much so that there are 30 percent more obese people in this world than there are malnourished people.
Author Robert Lustig is a YouTube hero for his long lecture on the evils of sugar. Gary Taubes described Dr. Lustig's thinking in a NY Times magazine article, "Is Sugar Toxic?". The gist of the gist - fructose, half of the common sucrose molecule, is metabolized differently from glucose, the normal constituent of other starchy foods. Our bodies just weren't designed to process the amounts of fructose people routinely consume these days, and the results are visible everywhere.
A bit of British history:
Britain's annual per capita consumption of sugar was 4lbs in 1704, 18lbs in 1800, 90lbs in 1901 - a 22-fold increase to the point where Britons had the highest sugar intake in Europe.
Here in the US we are up to about 150 lbs per person per year, up about 50% from 1950. Set against that is the Australian Paradox - since 1980 obesity Down Under has tripled while sugar consumption has fallen (Or not - see "But Then Again" below]. Hmm... is anyone going to let a bit of science come between them and a new batch of regulations and taxes?
Around the country and the world we have governments looking for new revenue sources and new ways to control health care costs. Can a tax on sugar be far away?
The New England Journal of Medicine took a look in 2009; they kept it simple by evaluating a tax on sugar-sweetened sodas. First, the economic rationale:
Economists agree that government intervention in a market is warranted when there are “market failures” that result in less-than-optimal production and consumption.29,30 Several market failures exist with respect to sugar-sweetened beverages. First, because many persons do not fully appreciate the links between consumption of these beverages and health consequences, they make consumption decisions with imperfect information. These decisions are likely to be further distorted by the extensive marketing campaigns that advertise the benefits of consumption. A second failure results from time-inconsistent preferences (i.e., decisions that provide short-term gratification but long-term harm). This problem is exacerbated in the case of children and adolescents, who place a higher value on present satisfaction while more heavily discounting future consequences. Finally, financial “externalities” exist in the market for sugar-sweetened beverages in that consumers do not bear the full costs of their consumption decisions. Because of the contribution of the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages to obesity, as well as the health consequences that are independent of weight, the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages generates excess health care costs. Medical costs for overweight and obesity alone are estimated to be $147 billion — or 9.1% of U.S. health care expenditures — with half these costs paid for publicly through the Medicare and Medicaid programs.31
I like to consider myself a free markets/consumer sovereignty kind of guy, but with sugar the collective decision making seems to be deplorable. Let's note that sugar is arguably addictive, which boosts the rationale for regulation. And with national health programs, we are all our brother's keeper or at least, bill-payer. If other people's illnesses are affecting my Medicare coverage and taxes, well, I have a right to squeak up, yes? This is just life on the slippery slope towards the socialization of everything.
On to the revenue potential, estimated at roughly $15 billion per year:
We propose an excise tax of 1 cent per ounce for beverages that have any added caloric sweetener.
...A tax of 1 cent per ounce of beverage would increase the cost of a 20-oz soft drink by 15 to 20%. The effect on consumption can be estimated through research on price elasticity (i.e., consumption shifts produced by price). The price elasticity for all soft drinks is in the range of −0.8 to −1.0.33 (Elasticity of −0.8 suggests that for every 10% increase in price, there would be a decrease in consumption of 8%, whereas elasticity of −1.0 suggests that for every 10% increase in price, there would be a decrease in consumption of 10%.) Even greater price effects are expected from taxing only sugar-sweetened beverages, since some consumers will switch to diet beverages. With the use of a conservative estimate that consumers would substitute calories in other forms for 25% of the reduced calorie consumption, an excise tax of 1 cent per ounce would lead to a minimum reduction of 10% in calorie consumption from sweetened beverages, or 20 kcal per person per day, a reduction that is sufficient for weight loss and reduction in risk (unpublished data). The benefit would be larger among consumers who consume higher volumes, since these consumers are more likely to be overweight and appear to be more responsive to prices.7 Higher taxes would have greater benefits.
The revenue generated from a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages would be considerable and could be used to help support childhood nutrition programs, obesity-prevention programs, or health care for the uninsured or to help meet general revenue needs. A national tax of 1 cent per ounce on sugar-sweetened beverages would raise $14.9 billion in the first year alone.
This ship will sail, so let me restate my Bold Prediction from last April, made more apropos by the advent of Super Sunday:
BOLD PREDICTIONS: Within fifty years Coca Cola and the NFL will be the fodder of campfire stories meant to scare excitable pre-teens. It can't happen? Sixty years ago Frank and Dean were the Kings of Cool, smoking cigarettes live on national television; now they would get busted and the President of the United States is heckled in his own home for being a smoker.
If high school football were invented today, any school board listening to the injury rate and equipment expense would laugh out loud. It's days are numbered.
And Coke? Sales will be regulated as cigarettes are today, and sales to minors won't be legal. And someone somewhere will be charged with child abuse for giving a kid a Coke. Really.
In Australia, the UK and USA, per capita consumption of refined sucrose decreased by 23%, 10% and 20% respectively from 1980 to 2003. When all sources of nutritive sweeteners, including high fructose corn syrups, were considered, per capita consumption decreased in Australia (−16%) and the UK (−5%), but increased in the USA (+23%). In Australia, there was a reduction in sales of nutritively sweetened beverages by 64 million liters from 2002 to 2006 and a reduction in percentage of children consuming sugar-sweetened beverages between 1995 and 2007. The findings confirm an ―Australian Paradox‖—a substantial decline in refined sugars intake over the same timeframe that obesity has increased. The implication is that efforts to reduce sugar intake may reduce consumption but may not reduce the prevalence of obesity.
Nutrients 2011, 3, 491-504; doi:10.3390/nu3040491
YOU DON'T KNOW JACK: Let's flash back to Jack LaLanne making the case against "sugarholics", with the alcohol analogy.
AROUND THE HORN: AllahP decries Big Government:
You would think that in an information age, as TVs and cell phones become ubiquitous even among the lower classes, nanny impulses would be channeled more frequently into public education campaigns than into regulation. Doesn’t feel that way, though, does it? You get the calorie counts on fast-food menus now, but you also get moronic attempts to ban Happy Meals in San Francisco. Maybe one begets the other — i.e. precisely because it’s easier to put the word out about food and nutrition, the nanny-minded become more aware of the dangers of certain substances and feel obliged to press harder for regulation. Or maybe it’s a simple matter of health warnings being drowned out by an expanding galaxy of ads for the dangerous products. I don’t quite buy that theory, though: Cigarettes haven’t enjoyed ubiquitous advertising and the actual packs have carried warnings for nearly 50 years, but somehow even that degree of informed consent is lately being deemed insufficient, thus requiring actual photos of people with tracheotomies on the packs — even though virtually everyone above grade school levels knows that smokes are a cancer risk. The more access to information you have, the dumber you supposedly are, and therefore the more your choices have to be made for you by your superiors. Isn’t the future glorious?
Rick Moran bashes ObamaCare:
Attention SCOTUS: Arguments against Obamacare start and end with the notion that if it becomes a permanent law, government will have license to meddle in American's daily lives beyond anything previously imagined.