First they come for the alcohol, then for the tobacco, then for your sugar.
When the day arrives when you have to undergo a background check and endure a three-day waiting period to enter a Dunkin’ Donuts, you can trace the loss of your unrestricted access to a Boston Kreme or French Cruller to this moment. Namely the publication in the journal Nature of an article calling for regulating sugar as a health hazard, although stopping “far short of all-out prohibition” (that would be too extreme).
One of the authors is Robert Lustig of the University of California, San Francisco, who hopes to be to the consumption of sugary beverages and foods what William Wilberforce was to the slave trade. He is not given to understatement. In a video discussion with his co-authors, he says that thanks to sugar and its contribution to chronic noncommunicable diseases like heart disease and diabetes, “we are in the midst of the biggest public health crisis in the history of the world.”
Bigger than the bubonic plague that killed off about half the population of Europe in the 14th century, in an epic demographic catastrophe? Bigger than the 1918 flu pandemic that killed as many as 50 million people? As soon as Coca-Cola becomes so toxic that it nearly instantaneously wipes out a large proportion of the world’s population and influences the course of civilization, well then, Lustig has a case.
There is a vigorous debate among researchers about how harmful sugar is, and Lustig — as you might imagine — takes the dire view. This fuels his push for “gentle ‘supply side’ control strategies” to limit the intake of sugar, including “taxation, distribution controls, age limits.” He and his co-authors imagine tighter “licensing requirements on vending machines and snack bars.” They muse about “zoning ordinances to control the number of fast-food outlets and convenience stores in low-income communities, and especially around schools.”
Under this regime, we’ll go from gun-free school zones to Snickers-free school zones. Lustig and Co. want to double the price of a soda by taxation. They seriously propose starting to card young people who try to buy a Dr. Pepper, with an age cutoff of 17. This will make 17 a fraught age: Old enough (with parental consent) to join the military and old enough to buy chocolate milk.
I’ve always thought soda is bad for you, not from studying the data, but because my mom wouldn’t let us have it in the house when we were kids. Which settled the issue rather nicely — no taxes, no zoning ordinances. As it turns out, research shows the power of engaged parents. A study published in Pediatrics in 2010 found that if children ate dinner with their families, got about 10 hours of sleep per night, and watched two hours or less of TV on weeknights, they had a lower risk of obesity.
The mindset of the Robert Lustigs of the world is that we can’t trust parents or individuals to make sound choices. “They don’t consider it public health,” he scolds in the video, referring to opponents of a government anti-sugar campaign, “they consider it personal responsibility.” But if what you choose to eat and drink is no longer considered the province of personal responsibility, what is left?
If this all seems good for yuks, just wait ten years. Before it’s over, the offending food and beverage companies — the “sugar merchants,” as a journalist sympathetic to Lustig’s case puts it — could well be as beaten-down as the tobacco companies. One of Lustig’s co-authors refers to sugar as “the substance.” The article cites “the dependence-producing properties of sugar in humans.” The predicate is there for making Little Debbie, despite her wholesome red curls and cheery slogan (“Unwrap a Smile”), into the moral equivalent of a drug pusher.
Chuckle now, but make plans to stockpile cookie dough and Mountain Dew, just in case.