Part 5 : Should sugar be taxed?


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SAN FRANCISCO -- Americans may feel they're overtaxed, but what about a sugar tax? Some obesity experts believe some regulation may be necessary.

Obesity rates have doubled in the last 25 years. Greg Critser, author of "Fatland: How Americans Became the Fattest in the World," is happy to explain why.

"We know obesity has a strong genetic element to it, but we also know genes don't change in 25 years. Our gene pool's the same," Critser said, "so clearly what's changed is the environment."

Critser said obesity experts call the American environment "obesogenic" because it promotes under-activity and the overconsumption of calories. In fact, some say it's cheaper to buy foods packed with calories than fruits and veggies. Researchers in Seattle calculated how many calories a dollar can buy: 1200 calories of chips, but only 250 calories of carrots.

Obesity expert Dr. Robert Lustig, of the University California, San Francisco, said it's little wonder our nation is so fat. Those cheap calories, he said, are mostly from sugars -- all kinds of sugars.

He said "Sugar is sugar, sweet is sweet, and we shouldn't be sweetening ourselves to death, and that's what we're doing."

Dr. Lustig blames fructose, a molecule found in all sugars and sweeteners. Fructose spells trouble in three ways. He said, "Number 1, it stimulates hunger; No. 2, it hurts your liver, and No. 3, it makes your brain want more."

Dr. Lustig says put those three things together, and we have a vicious cycle of overconsumption. He says he sees obesity problems now happening in 6-month-olds.

How do we change that? Former FDA commissioner Dr. David Kessler says education matters most. He's author of "The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite." Dr. Kessler, who led the battle against the tobacco industry, has joined the fight against obesity. He reveals how the food industry has hijacked the brains of millions of Americans by feeding them food layered and loaded with sugar, fat and salt.

But, he adds, you can't regulate food like tobacco because people need food to survive. He hopes that by revealing how people are manipulated by the food industry that they will be educated.

He said, "It's giving people information so they can protect themselves, so they can fight back and prevent manipulating, and they can also demand from the food industry nutritious food that is not in these huge gigantic portions that are just layered and loaded with fat-on-fat-on-sugar-on-fat."

But is education enough? Dr. Lustig says no. "It's not enough when you're dealing with this addiction question, when you're dealing with this nucleus accumbens, when you're dealing with this dopamine as a problem," he explained. "Look at the things that change dopamine: cocaine, nicotine, alcohol, cannabis, amphetamine. Education doesn't work for any of them."

Dr. Lustig says it's all about taxation and restriction when it comes to sugary foods, especially soda. He said, "If a parent wants a kid to have soda, let them buy it for them;" adding that he is under no illusion that one day, soda, juices, and sports drinks will disappear.

When it comes to sugary drinks, he added, "I don't think they need to be banned, but what I think they need to be is regulated."

And regulation and taxes appear to have an impact on sales of other products. On April 1, 2009, a huge jump in the tobacco tax pushed a record number of smokers to try to quit. Public health advocates believe a soda tax would convince Americans to give up their sugary drinks as well. Dr. Kelly Brownell of Yale University argues that "we can't sit around anymore and argue for the status quo." He's co-author of a controversial paper in the New England Journal of Medicine. He proposes taxing sugary beverages in order to prevent obesity-related disease.

Dr. Brownell says we are in crisis. He said, "This is the first time in history where our health experts are asking whether our children will lead shorter lives than their parents do."

The Sugar Association strongly disagrees with a sugar tax and, in a statement, said: "Selective taxation is an issue beyond the realm of science. The belief that sugar consumption needs to restricted is not supported by the totality of scientific evidence."

Cardiologist Dr. James Rippe speaks for the Corn Refiners Association and says high fructose corn syrup is also being unfairly demonized.

"We have to stop being crazy about this and recognize that all sugars should be consumed in moderation," he said.

Nutrition experts from Harvard have proposed a new class of drinks that are low sugar with no more than 1 gram of sugar per ounce and no artificial sweeteners. The idea is to re-educate the American palate so we get used to a little less sweet.

Dr. Lustig warns the clock is ticking and drastic measures are required. "I am paralyzed with fear," he said. "This is horrible we are going to lose an entire generation of Americans."

E-mail: drkim@ksl.com

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