Don’t tell me sugar isn’t addictive. I’ve been quitting it all my adult life

The latest image problem for the soft drinks industry may be the most damaging yet


Warren Buffet once said that, if he was given $1 billion and asked to beat Coca-Cola, he would hand back the money, because it simply couldn’t be done. This week, it seemed he might have had a point.

In a New York courtroom, judge Milton A Tingling overruled mayor Michael Bloomberg ’s long-gestated “soda ban”, hours before it was due to come into effect on Tuesday morning.

I was in New York in the days beforehand, and it was impossible to miss preparations for the ban on so-called Big Gulps – bucket-sized portions of fizzy drinks. On every cab’s entertainment system, news bulletins reminded people to drink up while they still could; newspapers pondered the prospect of “soda speakeasies”.

This was big news in a country where people typically get 200 of their daily calories from fizzy drinks – six times the number they consumed in 1965, says the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition .

But it’s not entirely true to say no one had anticipated the ruling. Together with the National Association of Theatre Owners and the National Restaurant Association, the soft-drinks industry had mounted a robust legal attack on the plans.

Not so soft
Coca-Cola has a history of successfully rising above challenges to its brands – this started 110 years ago with the first significant health scare about Coca-Cola. The drink, which had been developed by chemist John Pemberton, had quickly gained popularity with, as Pemberton put it, “scientists, scholars, poets, divines, lawyers, physicians, and others devoted to extreme mental exertion” – actually, just about everyone.

Small wonder: a 1903 report in the New York Tribune revealed that Pemberton’s wonder drink contained actual cocaine – nine-milligrams of it in every seven-ounce glass.

Coca-Cola promptly stopped using fresh coca leaves in its product, substituting them with coca leaves that had the cocaine content extracted. And Americans went on happily gulping Coca-Cola, soon to be joined by the rest of the world.

But the current image problem of such beverages – 680 or so in all – may prove the most damaging yet.

In September 2011, the UN declared that, for the first time, chronic non-infectious diseases such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes posed a greater risk to human health than infectious diseases. The number of obese people in the world is 30 per cent greater than the number who are undernourished.

But obesity itself may be a symptom rather than a cause of these illnesses – one in five obese people can expect a normal lifespan, while up to 40 per cent of people with normal weight share some of the health problems of the obese.

Some scientific evidence blames these health problems not on fat but on sugar.

Robert Lustig, professor of paediatrics at the Un iversity of California, and one of the world’s leading campaigners on sugar, likens its effect on the body to alcohol.

“Sugar induces all of the diseases associated with metabolic syndrome”, including hypertension, insulin resistance, diabetes and increased ageing, he wrote in a February 2012 article in Nature , co-authored with two colleagues. “It can also be argued that fructose exerts toxic effects on the liver similar to those of alcohol.”

Sugar, Lustig says, has been linked to cancer and cognitive decline. It dampens the suppression of the hormone that tells us we’re hungry, and interferes with the hormone that signals to the brain that it is full. It reduces dopamine, “thereby decreasing the pleasure derived from food and compelling the individual to consume more”.

Some of Lustig’s ideas have stirred up controversy among his medical colleagues, who say he offers too few hard facts to link sugar to obesity. In my view, he has enough expertise to at least force us to think hard about feeding it to our children.

There are many who still believe that sugary drinks are the tobacco products of tomorrow, and who would like to see them taxed or restricted at the supply side, in the same way as tobacco and alcohol. Hands up: I am one of them.

It’s not quite true to say I’m as likely to hand one of my children a bottle of Coke as I am to pass them a lit cigarette or a glass of beer, but it’s not such a wild overstatement. It isn’t that I believe a single fizzy drink is going to do them much harm – rather that, having spent much of my adult life trying to wean myself off it, I know how habit forming sugar is.

Bloomberg’s attempt may have fallen flat, but he has said he will appeal judge Tingling’s ruling and several other US states are already weighing their options. Here, the Minister for Health James Reilly has said he is in favour of an additional tax on sweetened drinks, even if the Minister for Finance Michael Noonan believes the 23 per cent VAT to which they are already subjected is sufficient.

Sobering message
If you want to know what Coca-Cola – a company that has written the book on cunning marketing – makes of it all, its ad campaigns probably offer a fair insight. In January, it ran a series on American television that used the word “obesity”. The sober, two-minute segment pointed out that if you consume more calories than you burn up, you’ll get fat.

For the first time in its history, the brand seemed fearful rather than brash, forsaking frolicking polar bears for a carefully-worded
message about caution and temperance. If I was Warren Buffet, I might just take that billion.

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