Sugar Wars and Globesity - Elected officials need to stand up to the food industry on behalf of consumers


By Laura A. Schmidt, UCSF

Many people feel like Bloomberg’s proposed Big Gulp Ban represents the worst form of government paternalism. Why should this hand-wringing nanny of a mayor make decisions for me about the size of my morning Coke? As one soft drink industry spokesman put it, it’s not the public, but the New York City Health Department, that has an “unhealthy obsession” with sugar.

I would be in total agreement with these views if I didn’t do addiction research for a living. But from where I sit, the whole sugar debate is riddled with misinformation (As David Miller and Claire Harkins explain in their recent AR blog piece) and false assumptions. One of the worst is the assumption that we are completely free to choose what we eat and drink.


Sugar, Industry documents and research on corporate influences on addiction

by David Miller and Claire Harkins

The debate about whether sugar is addictive or not is watched closely by the food industry. Scientific and policy acceptance that sugar is addictive would have very significant consequences for their ability to continue the global over-production of sugar [1]. But while there is a real debate over how precisely to conceive of sugar, it is also plain that industry has been actively attempting to manufacture doubt about the known harm that sugar causes to public health. The industry has, in fact, been doing so for more than forty years. This was emphasised recently with the disclosure of a cache of documents chronicling how the sugar industry undermined evidence based policy by influencing both the science of sugar and how responses to the over-consumption of sugar are handled by policy elites.

1,500 pages of documents including internal memos show how the sugar industry used similar tactics to the tobacco industry to manufacture doubt on the harms caused by dietary sugars ‘to ensure that government agencies would dismiss troubling health claims against their products’ [2]. The documents came to light after a dental health administrator Cristin Kearns Couzens was so shocked at the downplaying of the risks of sugars at a dental conference that she started investigating how science was being distorted [3]. Couzens found the documents in a cardboard box at the Colorado State University archives.


A framework convention for alcohol?

by Robin Room

Among all the psychoactive substances which humans consume, alcohol ranks very high In terms of the harms it causes. In the comparative risk analysis which was part of the recent estimates of the Global Burden of Disease for 2010, alcohol ranked second only to tobacco in harm to health.  And the GBD primarily measures harm to the health of the user.  But much of the harm from alcohol is not to the drinker, but to others – whether family, friends or strangers – and includes social as well as health harms.  The extent of this harm to others is at the same order of magnitude as the harm to the drinker – much greater than the harm to others from tobacco.  When the potential harm to others is taken into account, alcohol was recently ranked by psychopharmacologists first among psychoactive substances in its intrinsic harmfulness.


Minimum unit pricing in Scotland: Parliament agrees, global alcohol producers challenge.

Dr Peter Rice, Chair, Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems
Dr Evelyn Gillan, Chief Executive, Alcohol Focus Scotland

David Miller and Claire Harkins’ ALICE RAP blog of 21st May outlines the potential content and process of a legal challenge to Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP). MUP was passed into law by the Scottish Parliament on 24th May with an MUP of 50p, and is due to come into force in April 2013. In July the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) confirmed their intention to challenge the legislation, which was passed without opposition in Parliament, in both the Scottish and European courts. The question was never whether there would be a legal challenge, but who would front the challenge. It is now clear that with the Scotch Whisky Association’s initiative, publicly supported by the Wine and Spirits Trade Association, the European Spirits Association and the Brewers of Europe, the major global alcohol producers, are working together to oppose this legislation.

The context within which this challenge is taking place needs to be understood if public health advocates in other countries are to learn from the Scottish experience.


The struggle over Minimum Unit Pricing for alcohol has only just begun

by David Miller and Claire Harkins

Legal measures setting a minimum unit price (MUP) for alcohol at 50p, which were announced earlier this month, will shortly make their way to the statute books in Scotland.[1] The devolved Scottish Government will make history as the first European administration to introduce such a measure, intended to improve public health. But once the measure is on the statute books the real battle will begin.  This is likely to go all the way to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) as the alcohol industry will mount a long-threatened (and planned) legal challenge.   

The Scottish Government says it is confident that the bill is compatible with EU legislation; the alcohol industry takes the opposite view.  What is clear is that, without an equivalent precedent in the EU, litigation is the only means of securing a definitive answer on the question of legality.