The parallels between political attitudes toward sugar-sweetened sodas and tobacco grow more clear every day. In January, a lawsuit filed by the nonprofit Praxis Project against Coca-Cola and the American Beverage Assocation complained that the two had conspired to continue marketing soft drinks to consumers, in spite of prior knowledge that they are potentially harmful by contributing to obesity and diabetes. The suit draws specific similiarities to the marketing efforts of the U.S. tobacco industry, which routinely defended itself against claims 50 years ago that cigarettes caused cancer by denying any scientific link, or by suggesting other factors caused cancer. By the 1980s, the tobacco companies argued smokers knowingly assumed the risks of cancer, or other health problems, when they began smoking. That defense effectively ended in 1998, when the attorneys general of 46 states signed a multi-billion dollar settlement against the four largest tobacco companies. The Praxis lawsuit now wants to see similar penalties for soda makers, who have similarly argued their products aren't to blame, but instead point to individual responsiblity, lack of exercise and poor diets in general as the cause of the rising rate of obesity.
Were that not strange enough, the last six months has seen another term introduced into the political debate that echoes the tobacco experience. In addition to demands to regulate the individual's consumption of soda via sin-taxes that increase their cost to discourage use, now we're hearing about the dangers of "second-hand sugar."
The term is obviously borrowed from the term "second-hand smoke," the combination of smoke exhaled by a nearby smoker along with the smoke coming from a lighted cigarette. It has been blamed for contributing to lung and other cancers even in people who don't smoke, and was used as the rationale for public smoking bans nationwide.
And now: Sugar. "Sugars can be harmful to children as early as in the womb," says Secondhand Sugars, a project of University of Southern California professor of pediatric preventive medicine Michael Goran. "Secondhand sugars are the sugars found in foods and beverages that babies in utero, infants, and children are exposed to involuntarily. The risks include obesity and related diseases like diabetes as well as cognitive and learning problems. Just as we protect children from dangerous secondhand smoke, we should prevent children from being exposed to secondhand sugars."
But the analogy doesn't end there. A wider school of thought is now seriously suggesting obesity may, in fact, be contagious. A 2007 article by Harvard healthcare policy specialist Nicholas Christakis and University of California political scientist James Fowler argued that obesity can be 'caught' through your social networks. In fact, according to another, obesity is rightly defined as a "socially-contagious" feature of globalization. A person's chance of becoming obese significantly increases if he has an obese friend, sibling or spouse. If the friendship is mutual, the chance of obesity goes up 171 percent.
"Obesity is contagious." writes former Obama Administraion regulatory czar Cass Sunstein in his book Nudge, Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness. " If your best friends get fat, your risk of gaining weight goes up."
As was the case with tobacco, the impulse to make an individual's over-consumption of sugary beverages into a wider public-health problem gives weight to arguments to regulate and tax them. Says University of Alabama at Birmingham statistician David Allison, "Should we intervene with people who are already at the high end of the [Body Mass Index] continuum, because maybe they’ll benefit the most or need it the most? Or should we intervene more broadly because we’ll have a bigger bang for our buck with a bigger population?"
Irregardless of smug Internet reporters' observations that punishing soda taxes in fact discourage people from buying soda, by and large, those efforts to curb individual consumption have been a disappointment. University of Illinois research showed that a 10 percent increase in soda price is associated with only a 3.4 percent to 4.6 decrease in soda consumption, depending on the demographic. The current evidence on associations between soda taxes and body weight is "mixed," they say, and no evidence exists that taxes have made an impact on health. The results of their recent analysis of scan data suggest that policies designed to increase the price of soda via taxes might be less effective than many believe. Consumers can shield themselves from price increases by taking advantage of grocers' temporary sales, an effect that's most pronounced among demographics with the highest obesity rates. Their findings, they ominously report, means "...policy interventions aimed at preventing stockpiling (e.g., banning sales) would, according to our results, produce more effective results."
That wider political aim revealed by the "second-hand" redefinition of sugar is coming clear. The real gain from establishing a soda tax may not be through any direct health impact on the individual who pays it, writes University of Glasgow's Chair of Human Nutrition Mike Lean. Instead, its benefit is part of a "package."
"Such a tax would clearly indicate that governments are at last prepared to use fiscal means to change the currently suboptimal national food supply that a free market has produced," he writes. "Public health can only improve if the total food supply is changed. The only way that diet-related health can be improved, without widening health inequalities, is through 'health-by-stealth' approaches. This means changing the food supply rather than using education, which preferentially benefits the better educated and better advantaged. It means reformulating entire product portfolios rather than creating premium-price 'health food' products."