We now know that the tobacco industry suppressed scientific and medical research while spending millions of dollars to keep Americans addicted to tobacco.
At the time, though, it was confusing for Americans to know who to believe. The tobacco industry employed powerful lobbyists, who loudly denounced the suggestion of taxation or regulation. It ran effective propaganda advertising campaigns, and made sure that people saw their products in the hands of influential public figures. All movie stars smoked; all cool cowboys, tough cops, war heroes, and even housewives had a favorite brand. The tobacco industry, we now know, did all of this while keeping the fact that they knew smoking caused lung cancer quiet, and casting unfounded doubt on the medical experts who said so.
Is it possible that the sugar industry is just as powerful, crooked, and hellbent on misrepresenting itself?
According to their paper, Kearns, Glantz, and Apollonio think the answer is yes. The sugar industry funded research in the 1960s and 1970s to study the effects of a high-sugar diet in rats. The results linked a high-sugar diet to cancer and heart disease. But those results were never published. Instead, the sugar industry suppressed on this type of research, and ran an aggressive PR campaign demonizing dietary fats as the leading cause of heart disease.
In fact, the sugar industry was apparently pretty comfortable asserting its influence. This is the first sentence of the new PLOS Biology paper: “In 1965, the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF) secretly funded a review in the New England Journal of Medicine that discounted evidence linking sucrose consumption to blood lipid levels and hence coronary heart disease (CHD).”
The campaign to malign dietary fats while promoting sucrose as natural and healthy were extremely effective.
Eggs were out. Butter was out. Chemical-laden margarine was in. Low-fat, sugar-heavy cereals, breads, and convenience foods were in. The sugar industry was reaping the benefits of its effective misinformation campaigns. Meanwhile, Americans got fatter. Heart disease, cancer, and diabetes increased steeply.
From the looks of it, the sugar industry's decades-long powerful influence may be tied to America's current obesity epidemic, and even the corresponding increase in heart disease and some types of cancer.
Just like big tobacco, the sugar industry used a combination of powerful lobbyists, aggressive and effective PR campaigns, and systematic suppression and denial of medical evidence and findings. As a result, we are a less healthy nation. The cost of this deceit and influence, in lives lost and medical expenses, is unknowable and likely astronomical.
The Sugar Association, a U.S. trade association, naturally denounces the paper’s findings and released a statement; here’s an excerpt:
“The article we are discussing is not actually a study, but a perspective: a collection of speculations and assumptions about events that happened nearly five decades ago, conducted by a group of researchers and funded by individuals and organizations that are known critics of the sugar industry.”
(The paper was funded by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Samuel Lawrence Foundation, the National Cancer Institute, the UCSF Philip R. Lee Institute of Health Policy Studies, the UCSF School of Dentistry, and the Nutrition Science Initiative.)
It's almost impossible to avoid added sugars in our diets these days.
The truth about tobacco finally overpowered the powerful tobacco lobby, and today we see health warnings on cigarettes, regulations about where people can and cannot smoke, and taxes on tobacco products to offset the enormous healthcare costs of tobacco-related diseases. Perhaps one day sugar will face similar consequences. For now, though, the burden is on each of us to monitor our daily intake of the sweet stuff.