The Sinister Implications of a World Hooked on Sugar

sugarHow sweet it is. And how deadly. Sugar, I mean. Yes, that sweet-tasting, innocent looking white powder takes more lives than cocaine or heroin. Yet it is marketed freely around the world, without a murmur of protest from those charged with protecting society.

I should know. I am a lifelong sugar addict. And I am paying for it now with twice-daily injections of insulin and a miserably restrictive diet. And the years and years of diabetes have taken their toll on other parts of my anatomy… My kidneys are failing and my heart is damaged.

It started a long time ago, back in old Mr. Pine’s shop in Port Antonio, Jamaica. I was a chubby toddler with a surprisingly deep voice, and when i sang “Old Man River,” everyone would burst out laughing. My father was an agricultural instructor, and he would leave me with Mr. Pine’s daughter, Beryl, when he went on his rounds throughout the parish of Portland. She would put me on the counter and when customers came in she would often ask me to sing for them. And they would reward me with candy – paradise plums, mint balls, Bustmante back bone…

I suspect that’s how I got hooked on sugar. And, regardless of any “expert” opinion to the contrary, I am convinced that’s what led to my diabetes. By the age of six, I was diagnosed with “sugar in the blood.” Dr. Lanaman put me on a diet of bran – just bran, nothing else – for months. But when I was sent off to school in Kingston, that diet was forgotten, and I never thought about diabetes again for many years – while I consumed vast quantities of malted milk shakes, dusty sundaes, sugar buns and other “treats.” I suppose that I survived because I was always on the go, chasing stories as a reporter, playing soccer and cricket, boxing at the YMCA…

It wasn’t until I got really sick in my forties that I asked a doctor to test my sugar. By then, the diabetes had taken firm hold of me.

Why am I telling you all this? Because I received a newsletter this morning from a group called Care2, which included an item on a proposed U.S. tax on soft drinks. The item, posted by health writer Ann Pietrangelo, began with the question:

Would you support a tax on sugar-sweetened soft drinks?

The writer went on to examine the debate over the proposed tax. I hadn’t seen or heard anything about it in the news, but I had seen ads by the soft drink industry warning against the evils of taxing soft drinks. Ms. Pietrangelo reported that:

A recent article in The New England Journal of Medicine lays out the evidence linking sugar consumption, chronic illness, and the urgent need for solutions. One of the solutions currently being discussed is a tax added to sugary soft drinks which would be used to offset health care costs. Driving the prices of unhealthy drinks up would, in theory, drive consumption down, much like the taxes on tobacco have done.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group that supports the idea, says that “Americans spend roughly $100 billion a year on medical expenditures related to obesity, of which half is paid with Medicare and Medicaid dollars, and a tax of seven cents per soft drink can would raise $10 billion per year to help pay for an expansion of health care coverage and help lower obesity rates.”

Americans Against Food Taxes, a group that opposes such a tax, says that “we can’t tax our way to healthier lifestyles, and we need to make that clear to our members of Congress. After all, we do have an obligation to our children – and to ourselves – to promote healthy lifestyles through balanced diet and exercise.”

It wasn’t hard to figure out who was behind “Americans Against Food Taxes.” It has become routine in America for industry public relations representatives to disguise their activities as populist “causes.” And the writer argued that both sides “make a good case.” Here’s how she put it:

Recently, the American Heart Association suggested that women limit sugar intake to 100 calories, or 6 teaspoons a day, and that men should limit their consumption to 150 calories, or 9 teaspoons.

To put those numbers in perspective, one 12-ounce can of cola has 130 calories, or 8 teaspoons. Americans are currently taking in an average of 22 teaspoons of sugar per day — obviously too much, but soft drinks are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to dietary horrors. It’s a sticky, slippery slope.

Personal responsibility has to kick in at some point.

These “arguments” remind me of the debate over smoking. Remember when tobacco companies used the same schtick about “personal responsibility” to defend their campaigns to create drug addicts? And remember how their “dirty tricks” were exposed? How they doctored their product to hook children?

I am convinced that’s exactly what the sugar industry does. The other morning I ran out of orange juice and swiped some of Sandra’s apple juice to take my pills. It was so sweet my lips puckered. The products marketed to children are super-sweet, and that develops a taste for more and more sugar. By the time they reach the age of “personal responsibility” they are irretrievably hooked.

So would I support a tax on sugar-sweetened soft drinks? You bet I would. And I wait patiently for the day when huge judgments will be awarded against the sugar industry – as they were against the tobacco industry. I can only hope that as more information becomes available, the deadly implications of a world hooked on sugar will shock the public into revolt.