Is Sugar the New Tobacco?

Like tobacco, obesity is a leading cause of preventable death.  Being overweight or obese is now the norm in New York City, as it is throughout the country.  58% of adult New Yorkers are overweight or obese.  Two-thirds of adults in the U.S. are obese.  In NYC, obesity leads to 5,800 deaths a year and costs taxpayers $4 billion annually.

Like Big Tobacco, corporate manufacturers of sugary drinks rely heavily on marketing, particularly to children.  To attract youth, Big Tobacco advertising relies on themes of adventurousness, athleticism, sexual attractiveness, thinness, popularity and being “cool.”  We’ve stopped tobacco marketing on television and radio, but just 40 years ago, Fred Flintstone promoted Winston cigarettes.  Are we going to look back 50 years from now and think the same of Coke or Pepsi commercials?

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s progressive proposal to limit the sale of sugar-sweetened beverages is a bold attempt to stem this epidemic.  The proposed ban would affect the sale of sugary drinks—such as soda, sports drinks, sweetened tea or coffee—in cups or containers that are more than 16 fluid ounces at restaurants, food carts, delis and concession stands at movie theaters, stadiums and arenas.

A little sugar is not a problem, a lot will kill you—slowly.  A recent study by researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, says that sugar poses enough health risks that it should be considered a controlled substance like tobacco.  Sugar is responsible for obesity and Type 2 diabetes.  In high doses, it is toxic and contributes to many fatal health conditions, such as cardiovascular disease and cancer.  Michael Jacobson, Director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says the Mayor’s proposed ban is “the boldest effort yet to prevent obesity, which is not only painful for millions of Americans but is costing our nation upwards of $150 billion in higher health costs annually.”

Big Soda’s aggressive marketing and steep discounts for supersizes are not in the public interest.   Even so-called health and energy drinks are often filled with sugar and ironically help us gain the weight we often work so hard to lose.

Don’t sugary drink commercials promote their products as refreshing, flavorful and cool?  They are promoting to the same market Big Tobacco is constantly trying to lure into a life of nicotine addiction.  Slightly different message, same market.   Has Joe Camel been replaced by the surfer dude who can only be refreshed from the latest soft drink?  If we follow the science, shouldn’t the surfer dude be replaced by the contestants from The Biggest Loser?

We have our work ahead of us.  We support our partners on who are finally addressing obesity and promoting a healthy lifestyle.  While we believe New Yorkers have a right to breathe clean, smoke-free air where they live, work and play, we also believe that sugar can be the new tobacco…if we let it.