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If Sugar Is Addictive, What Does It Mean for the Law?

posted on Tue, Oct 2 2012 10:00 am by Marice Ashe

There’s growing evidence that sugar has addictive properties, much like alcohol and drugs. What does this mean for the way sugary foods and beverages are regulated in the United States? Could some of the policies that have helped limit drug and alcohol addiction be applied to the obesity epidemic?

I’ll be exploring this issue at the Public Health Law Conference with Ashley Gearhardt, Ph.D., a clinical psychology professor at the University of Michigan; and Michael Roberts, J.D., director of the Center for Food Law & Policy in Los Angeles.

The science on sugar and addiction is “quite strong,” says Dr. Gearhardt, noting that cravings are one of the biggest tip-offs. Cravings are a central part of drug addiction, she says, and the cravings humans have for highly processed foods like ice cream are much more intense than those for, say, an apple. Sufferers may not die of an overdose or experience such severe withdrawal symptoms that they end up in the hospital, but they do experience a loss of control over how much is consumed, despite negative consequences. Studies also show that animals given off-and-on access to sugar show signs of tolerance and withdrawal.

Health practitioners know that simply telling people who suffer from an addiction to “shape up” is not a reliably successful intervention. “We’ve done that with every addiction under the sun,” Dr. Gearhardt says. “It makes sense, but it just doesn’t work.”

Individual responsibility is important, of course, and so are treatment programs – but treating individuals who’ve hit a crisis point misses a whole population of people who still experience the harmful effects of an addictive substance. “If you want to get more bang for your buck,” says Dr. Gearhardt, “you have to pursue environmental approaches.”

And that prospect raises a lot of questions, says Roberts, about regulatory options and other legal strategies.

“There’s a mantra in the food industry that there’s no such thing as ‘good foods’ and ‘bad foods’; there are good diets and bad diets,” Roberts says. If science contradicts that mantra, he says, it carries an array of legal and policy implications.

How do we deal with products that contain addictive components? Restrictions on alcohol and tobacco advertising and access have significantly lessened the health and economic burden of these products. Does our food regulatory system need a new category for items that have addictive components? And if government bears responsibility for protecting consumers from these products, what sorts of regulations are appropriate? “Should there be a warning label?” Roberts asks. “Should there be advertising restrictions? Should we have age restrictions? Should they be kept out of public schools?”

Meanwhile, liability is another issue: Would the food industry be liable for harm caused over the years? Will we see lawsuits like those the tobacco industry faced a generation ago? And what about subsidies: Should the federal government stop subsidizing sugar as we did with tobacco?

These questions are just the beginning. Join us for more at our session at the 2012 Public Health Law Conference “If Sugar Is Addictive, What Does It Mean for the Law?” on Wednesday, October 10, at 3:15 p.m.

This blog was prepared by Marice Ashe, J.D., M.P.H., founder and CEO of ChangeLab Solutions, a nonprofit policy research and training center based in Oakland, California.

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.

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