Friday, December 7, 2012

Taubes in Mother Jones

Gary Taubes' article, Sweet Little Lies, was published in Mother Jones this month. The tag line is "The 40-year campaign to cover up evidence that sugar kills."

It starts:
"On a brisk spring Tuesday in 1976, a pair of executives from the Sugar Association stepped up to the podium of a Chicago ballroom to accept the Oscar of the public relations world, the Silver Anvil award for excellence in "the forging of public opinion." The trade group had recently pulled off one of the greatest turnarounds in PR history. For nearly a decade, the sugar industry had been buffeted by crisis after crisis as the media and the public soured on sugar and scientists began to view it as a likely cause of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. 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. As John "JW" Tatem Jr. and Jack O'Connell Jr., the Sugar Association's president and director of public relations, posed that day with their trophies, their smiles only hinted at the coup they'd just pulled off."

The cover benefits from an image of a pitcher of what looks like "Kool Aid" (aka colored, flavored sugar water), modified to resemble a mélange of a skull and an apologetic smile. You can see this photo here:

The article essentially says that there has been evidence of the health risks caused by excess sugar intake (type 2 diabetes leading to cancer, neurological disorders, and cardiovascular disease), but the industry, fearful of government regulation, used information suppression and distortion to prevent widespread discussion of these topics, preventing both regulation of the industry and execution of more definitive research.

A favorite tactic was to place folks "in the industry's pocket" as members of government panels looking into the subject. As a result, these government panels were pretty consistent in saying, essentially, "sugar's no problem." Folks, even a politician could figure out that 142 pounds of sugar (average annual consumption in the US) is not a good thing for health.

What does an industry mis-information campaign look like?

When questioned about the similarities of this case to the tobacco case, Taubes responds:
"There's a fundamental difference here that I will think change the way this plays out. With tobacco, the evidence was damning and, as I understand it, the tobacco industry tried to cover it up and make it go away. With sugar, the evidence was suggestive and the sugar industry just tried to make sure that the research to either exonerate sugar or convict it would never be done. They also worked and still work to assure that no consensus will ever be achieved. So ethically it's a different issue and it is legally as well. But now I'm stepping outside what little expertise I arguably have."

One thing that puzzles me is why the sugar industry so outperformed the beef industry in this public opinion battle. Was the beef industry so confident in its product that it felt it did not have to muzzle the government's mis-information about animal fats/saturated fats? Or, was the beef industry more dispersed and less amenable to effective representation by an industry lobby group? Perhaps they did everything they could but I just don't know about it. The irony is that the beef industry had science on its side all along, and the government sided with sugar instead. "Go figure."

How did the industry's distortions play out in real life? Here's an illustrative anecdote:
"But after flipping through The Stop & Go Fast Food Nutrition Guide, the book that healthy-living guru Steven G. Aldana had handed out at the conclusion of his talk, my fight or flight response kicked in. Aldana was on his way to the airport, and I had a question for him.

"I caught him halfway up the stairs leading to the street. "How can you say sweet tea is good for you?" I blurted out, less eloquently than I had intended. Aldana's book had given Lipton Brisk-which contains 11 teaspoons of sugars per 16-ounce can-his "You're eating healthy!" seal of approval. Earlier in my career, working as a dental director for low-income clinics in Denver, I had seen firsthand the damage these kinds of sugary drinks incur on people's teeth-never mind the causative role they may play in chronic diseases such as diabetes and obesity.

"Perched three steps above me, Aldana looked down calmly. "There is no research to support that sugar causes chronic disease," he said. Then, before I could string another sentence together, he was out the door."

NOTE: Here begins the libertarian editorial, feel free to skip this is you are emotionally invested in the competence and goodness of an expansive federal government.

The USDA's credibility is right up there with the rest of our "incredible" government, from fraud laden and astonishingly unsustainable Medicare, to bankrupt (and also fraudulent) social security, to the sham debate about the "fiscal cliff".   Finding out the USDA was used as a tool of industry isn't really a surprise, but it is nonetheless tragic since so many have suffered as a result (next big expose will be of all the ways the pharmaceutical industry leverages government stooges to peddle drugs which have been significantly misrepresented with regards to efficacy).

 Our government prescribes a dietary approach that makes people sick when they are old, and then spends "a mint" to keep them alive, meaning social security won't have enough funding to keep paying them. If it wasn't real, you would not believe it could be true.

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