For decades, Big Tobacco funded a multibillion dollar campaign to keep the truth about cigarettes from consumers. With scientists, marketers, lobbyists, and government officials on their payroll, they spread deceptive and misleading information. When their lies were exposed, Big Tobacco took a serious fall. Research into the risks associated with cigarette smoking and second-hand smoke gained traction, and before we knew it restaurants removed their “smoking sections,” cities and states had banned smoking in public places, and television networks had banned cigarette ads.
The coverup took decades. The cascading effects of dismantling these lies? Just a few years.
Why am I remembering this story? Because it gives me hope and encouragement. You see, we’re currently battling another giant industry culprit that’s been spreading lies and hindering public access to the truth for decades — Big Sugar.
According to Gary Taubes, Big Sugar’s day of reckoning is coming.
In a recent article of his for Mother Jones, Taubes delves into the story behind “Big Sugar’s Sweet Little Lies.” He exposes the truth about how the industry kept scientists from asking about the risks of consuming sugar, how they swayed the public into passively accepting sugar’s safety.
In 1976, the sugar industry was facing a crisis. Taubes sets the stage:
Industry ads claiming that eating sugar helped you lose weight had been called out by the Federal Trade Commission, and the Food and Drug Administration had launched a review of whether sugar was even safe to eat. Consumption had declined 12 percent in just two years, and producers could see where that trend might lead…. [A recent poll showed] that consumers had come to see sugar as fattening, and that most doctors suspected it might exacerbate, if not cause, heart disease and diabetes.
Enter the Sugar Association.
They launched a full out public opinion campaign to turn around sugar’s increasingly bad reputation. They used Big Tobacco’s tactics to “ensure that government agencies would dismiss troubling health claims against their products.” They paid for numerous studies to cast doubt on the hypothesis that sugar consumption is linked to weight gain, diabetes, and heart disease, even going so far as to create councils of concerned scientists and health and medical practitioners which then published white papers and reports declaring sugar safe and healthy. They even heavily lobbied the FDA to grant sugar the coveted GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) status that would dispel further scrutiny.
Over the subsequent decades, [sugar] would be transformed from what the New York Times in 1977 had deemed “a villain in disguise” into a nutrient so seemingly innocuous that even the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association approved it as part of a healthy diet. Research on the suspected links between sugar and chronic disease largely ground to a halt by the late 1980s, and scientists came to view such pursuits as a career dead end. So effective were the Sugar Association’s efforts that, to this day, no consensus exists about sugar’s potential dangers.
Of course, with sugar being passed off as relatively innocuous, it’s no wonder that our sugar consumption has steadily increased. Indeed, by 1999 the average American was eating more than twice the amount of sugar the FDA had deemed safe in 1986.
And with this increase in sugar consumption, we’ve naturally seen the increase the incidents of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
Are the two inexorably linked? Does eating sugar really lead to these chronic diseases? Recent science, as well as life-experience, seems to suggest so.
This hasn’t stopped Big Sugar from whipping out the big guns and fighting tooth and nail to keep the public in the dark. For more on that, I highly recommend you read the full article on the sugar industry’s campaign of lies.
So, where’s the good news? The light at the end of the tunnel?
You guys are getting the word out — through blogs like this, through social media like Facebook. We are changing the world, swaying public opinion, one forkful of food at a time!
Want to know more about sugar and natural sweeteners?
(top photo by chrisjohnbeckett)