Big Tobacco vs. Big Sugar

Key parallels and important distinctions.
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Editor's Note: This piece originally appeared in our January/February 2016 print issue as a sidebar to "The Former Dentist Uncovering Sugar's Rotten Secrets."

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(Photo: iStockPhoto)

(Photo: iStockPhoto)

Comparing certain businesses to the tobacco industry is a bit like comparing people to Adolf Hitler: There’s always the danger of exaggeration. The evidence linking cigarette smoking to lung cancer is undeniable, and decades of lawsuits and whistleblowing prove that tobacco company executives hid what they knew. Few other industries have been publicly exposed in such a compelling way. There are a number of key parallels between Big Sugar and Big Tobacco, but there are also important differences. Understanding the extent of the overlap between the two will be crucial for advocates and policymakers who are hoping to place stronger restrictions on America’s sugar industry. 

  • We have much more information on Big Tobacco’s secret activities than we do on Big Sugar’s.
    Cristin Kearns has about 1,500 pages of letters and memos. The University of California–San Francisco’s tobacco-industry archive holds about 14 million documents.
  • Big Tobacco knew its products were addictive and cancer-causing and lied about it.
    It’s not clear whether executives in sugar companies had more information about sugar’s effects on health than the public did. Instead of covering up pre-existing data, they may have simply kept others from studying sugar’s effects.
  • The science about sugar’s ill health effects is contested. The science about smoking’s effects is not.
    People who drink more sugary drinks are more likely to be obese and diabetic. Is that because sugar drives those health issues, or because these people are consuming more calories in general? There’s still no uncontroversial evidence sugar causes obesity and diabetes, but scientists are now studying the question.
  • Both industries capitalized on the inherent uncertainty of science.
    Both industries worked to maintain controversy, which undermines the political will to regulate products or to support public health campaigns. For example, sugar trade groups funded research that later turned out to be spurious, including studies showing that artificial sweeteners called cyclamates are unhealthy, and that people could use a vaccine to prevent cavities.
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