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The anti-sugar campaign is sinister and silly

By Chris Tilbury

You put it in your tea and coffee, drink it in fruit juice and it’s in just about everything else we consume: sugar is part of our daily lives and provides some of the essential energy that we need. This week the media became obsessed with it and not because everyone in the industry has suddenly developed a physical overnight addiction.

An academic, Professor Simon Capwell, from the University of Liverpool has menacingly dubbed the substance “the new tobacco”. Doctors and academics like Capwell say that we must reduce the amount of sugar we consume by as much as 30 per cent in order to curtail a wave of disaster, disease and death.

A whole day's worth of sugar in one drink

A whole day’s worth of sugar in one drink photo: Wendy O’Neal

Research into the sweetener has revealed that products we regularly purchase like venti caramel macchiatos, contain 42.8 grams of sugar, the equivalent to 10 teaspoons. That single drink equals World Health Organisation guidelines on sugar consumption.

Action on Sugar, the group behind the latest campaign to raise awareness of the hideous dangers of sugar consumption in the UK, took to BBC News last night to explain the problem. Using the examples of vitamin water, Heinz tomato soup, and Kelloggs Frosties, he illustrated that they all contain four teaspoons of sugar, adding that the adult portions contain even more.

The link between conditions like diabetes and body weight is calorific overconsumption.

It’s redolent of the campaign against smoking under Tony Blair in 2007 where many of the same tactics and strategies were used in an attempt to force the issue and pressure people into feeling like they had to support the policy.

However, comparing sugar to smoking and its effects is a dangerous one that has very little, if any, scientific proof. Unlike smoking, which is known to cause cancer, sugar does not directly link to death. The link between conditions like diabetes and body weight is calorific overconsumption. It is not specific to sugar.

Some would argue that the smoking ban is a good thing, allowing people who have no desire to smoke or be around smokers to get on with their lives without the fear of inhaling dangerous chemicals. Others would argue that the Government should stop interfering in the market because, after all, people pay tax on their cigarettes. In fact, smokers put more money into the NHS through the tax of cigarettes than they take out when they are sick.

Saccharine Politics

In the UK, Members of Parliament were quick to get involved in the growing furore with Commons Leader and former Health Secretary Andrew Lansley saying that “the analogy between sugar and tobacco was not appropriate”. A group of academics are also of the same opinion stating “it’s total hyperbole”.

It represented an opportunity for desperate politicians to get involved in something that would undoubtedly steal the headlines. For some, supporting the regulation of sugar consumption is an easy win. It is all too simple for people to hate large corporations that fill their products with sugar, like Starbucks and Coca-Cola. Siding with those who are already campaigning against such businesses and bringing a new dimension to the argument is a winning strategy for many state politicians.

That said, if the Government wants to delve into the debate about weight they need to be straight with people. Providing the obese with excuses for the way they look and behave will solve none of the related issues. At the end of the day, you’re fat because you eat too much and you don’t do enough exercise, not because you have “big bones”. Cutting down on the size of lattes sold by Starbucks is not going to solve the working class obesity problem.

You cannot bully people into eating healthily

The debate about sugar is likely to rumble on for weeks but let’s make it clear, we’ve been here before. Regulating things is something that the UK should steer clear of. Great Britain has a tradition of cultural freedom of allowing things to take place provided that they are not legislated against. The same applies for the US. Elsewhere things are different. In Europe, if people can access something, it has to be regulated and boundaries have to be set.

If you educate people and they still choose to ignore what they have been told the choice is up to them. You cannot bully people into eating healthily if they don’t want to.

Practice what you preach

It’s not even just that fact that these things get regulated and moderated that is frustrating. In trying to modify, the general public are being dictated to by the high and mighty. People are being told what to do and what to think, by people who in most cases don’t practice what they preach: look at the expanding waistbands in the House of Commons.

Nowhere was this more obvious than in Tristram Hunt’s performance on Newsnight where he painstakingly dodged Jeremy Paxman’s persistence in asking whether Mr. Hunt would send his children to a school which employed unqualified teachers.

Remember when smokers said you would be next? We laughed at the time, but isn’t there something desperately Orwellian about trying to regulate what people consume.

It would be far better to make it clear to people that if they don’t change their diet and behaviour they are going to cause themselves serious health problems. Honesty is the best policy, telling people that have “issues” that are causing them to become fat is just not true. Self-discipline and education are the solution.