Would there be an uproar if parents found out the school had passed around cigarettes – only one per kid, mind you – at the elementary school track-and-field day or the fundraiser run?
Advertisement for run: “All children who finish get a T-shirt and a cigarette at the end of the race!!”
Of course there would be major issues with that!
But by our country’s standards, it’s really pretty much ok to hand out things that are just like cigarettes to kids. They’re called popsicles.
I know, I know, you have some objections. I’m just going to ask you to keep an open mind as we talk through this issue. Watch for similarities between sugar and cigarettes, because even though we often SAY that white sugar is bad for you, how much do really know about the magnitude?
But Cigarettes are Illegal for Kids Under 18!
Very good point!
If we’re going to avoid doing something only because it’s illegal, would you give me a moment to explore where that law came from?
How long has there been a minimum age for tobacco? How did it get set at 18 (or 21 in a few states now)?
And WHY did the country decide that cigarettes weren’t ok for kids in the first place?
The answer is fascinating.
As it turns out, the minimum age for tobacco was set well before anyone really understood the health hazards of smoking, so it actually had nothing to do with health.
The very first laws against smoking that included an age limit are from the 1880s, starting at 16. Over the next few decades, some states banned them altogether and most raised the age to 21.
Between World War I and World War II, however, cigarette companies’ marketing teams successfully argued that if a man could be given a gun to fight for his country, he’s earned the right to a cigarette. Age limits settled in at 18 after that.
But why? Why set an age in the first place more than 80 years before the Surgeon General would issue a report in 1964 officially stating the cigarette smoking causes cancer?
Turns out it was more a matter of tradition, in a way. I’ll let Time.com lay it out for you:
Around the turn of the century, children were picking up the habit at shockingly young ages, even to people back then.
Though pipes or other tobacco products were an enduring part of American culture, as Cassandra Tate explains in her book Cigarette Wars, cigarettes—sold individually, cheaply enough to be purchased with pocket money—were seen as a danger to young children, prompting the New York Times to editorialize in 1905 that they had “an appalling hold on American youth beyond anything which the public at large had dreamed of.”
Is it possible that we’re there again? That children are picking up the sugar habit at shockingly young ages? I haven’t seen grocery store temper tantrums about broccoli, but the candy/cereal/checkout aisle, you betcha.
Is it possible that candy, sold cheaply enough to be thrown out at parades, could be a danger to young children?
Could sugar have an appalling hold on American youth – beyond anything which the public at large had dreamed of? (Or is yet willing to admit?)
Maybe the real question isn’t why cigarettes are against the law…but why sugar still isn’t.
But Cigarettes are Addicting!
My aunt recently told me that in the 50s, it was uncouth for children to even see adults smoking or drinking. I wondered why that was so. My hunch is that at the time, there was more of a demarcation between children and adults (I think).
Did the ban on smoking around children have anything to do with the addictiveness of nicotine? Did the adults of that era think that children wouldn’t have the self-control to handle cigarettes?
It’s very well-accepted now that nicotine is addictive. One only has to look at the economic success of nicotine patches and cessation programs to see that.
We don’t want our children addicted to something that may/will harm them starting at a young age!
So if cigarettes are bad because they’re addicting, is sugar in the same file folder?
Consumption of sugar:
- Creates a response in the brain similar to cocaine in animals 1 2 3 4 7 8
- May actually be MORE addictive than cocaine (animal study again) 1 2 4 8
- Can meet the required number of symptoms in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to be classified as a substance use disorder (cravings, tolerance, and withdrawal) 1
- Has been found to be habit-forming in humans 1 4 8
- Can cause a natural pain relieving effect (which is why they use sugar water for newborn shots) 7
- May even promote other habit-forming indulgences; rats with a sweet tooth or dependency on sugar are more likely to desire alcohol and self-administer cocaine 3
This author disagrees that sugar addiction might cause obesity – but she doesn’t dispute the fact that studies show (in animals, not yet humans) that sugar/carbohydrates ARE addicting.
But other experts say that the “jury is still out” on whether sugar can be truly addictive, because craving may be different from addiction, and there isn’t a physical dependency like there is for opiates. 6 7 Then again, if your brain becomes addicted, that may be even harder to overcome than the body. Our brains are wired to seek out sweet things, because our brains need the energy and sweets used to be so rare in nature. We needed to eat fruits, and ripe (sweeter) fruits at that. 3 6 7
James DiNicolantonio, cardiovascular research scientist at St. Luke’s Mid-America Heart Institute in Kansas City, Mo., does say that natural sugars like lactose in milk and fructose in fruit do NOT pose the same risk as refined sugars. But white sugar is a big problem:
But what if you just have sugar once in a while? If you eat a lot of it on those instances, it could be worse than ever:
“Food is not ordinarily like a substance of abuse, but intermittent bingeing and deprivation changes that. Based on the observed behavioral and neurochemical similarities between the effects of intermittent sugar access and drugs of abuse, we suggest that sugar, as common as it is, nonetheless meets the criteria for a substance of abuse and may be “addictive” for some individuals when consumed in a “binge-like” manner.” 3
The crazy thing is, even if we as a general public aren’t yet willing to accept the fact that sugar is as addictive as cigarettes, the marketers for food get it. They use the same strategies for advertising used by cigarette companies decades ago, with alarming similarities. Check out this TED talk that will get your head shaking so often that you might get a neck ache! screenshots below from recorded TED talk
As for me, I agree that the evidence is more and more heavily on the side of sugar being addicting, and I’d rather be safe than sorry when it comes to “who’s right?” on this question!
But Cigarettes are Bad for Your Health! We Don’t Want our Kids to Get Cancer!
“Tobacco use rakes up more than $96 billion a year in medical costs.” 5, emphasis mine
Obviously, cigarettes have been a huge stain on America’s health history. Will sugar be the same?
In a world where some voices are clamoring to convince people about the ill effects of sugar, more aren’t listening or are actively disagreeing. The American Heart Association warned us for years about fat but is reticent to issue the same dire warnings about sugar (and may have been paid off). In Newark, N.J., five children of the Fillimon family have been consuming full-sized candy bars since the age of two. The 11-year-old now eats two a day plus a couple sodas. All of these children appear healthy, go to school regularly, get good grades…
Does anyone think that’s absurd? Someday, I hope kids consuming that much sugar will make us feel the disgust and shock I feel when I read this REAL quote, from a 1928 Time Magazine article:
1928: Some experts tried early on to warn about the effect of nicotine, but were met with resistance. In an article about a researcher presenting data on nicotine and the brain, TIME writes: “Many U. S. doctors have contended and often hoped to prove that smoking does no harm. In Newark, N. J., five children of the Fillimon family have been smoking full-sized cigars since the age of two. The oldest, Frank, 11, now averages five cigars a day. All of these children appear healthy, go to school regularly, get good grades.” 5
Note: To be fair, the AHA did finally issue a warning about sugar increasing cardiovascular risk in children in August 2016. The recommendation includes NO added sugars for children under 2. Share with the candy-loving grandmas of the world!
Is sugar really a health risk though? Check it out:
- Added sugar is correlated with high triglycerides and lower HDL (“good”) cholesterol (both major heart health risks) 7 Our family has found that eating more healthy fat and cutting carbs drastically reduced my husband’s triglycerides
- Sugar may lead to ADHD-like symptoms or learning disorders 4 13
- Sugar may cause a mild state of depression when removed from the diet 4 13
- Sugar may be linked to obesity and then Type 2 diabetes, in part because it dulls the part of our brain that tells us to stop eating 4 10 13
- Eating sugar early in life may affect the microbiome in a negative way, shown in a study with rats 9 (and we all know how important gut health is!)
- Too much sugar can reduce the effectiveness of immune cells for a few hours after consumption 11 (ever noticed your kids getting sick after a party???)
- Studied in adolescent rats, large amounts of sugar may negatively impact long-term memory and metabolism and cause neuroinflammation 12 13
- Sugar is linked to dementia 13
If that’s not bad enough (and I think it is!!), what about sugar and cancer?
Studies are generally correlative when it comes to sugar and cancer, but it’s possible that cancers associated with obesity (breast, prostate, colorectal, and pancreatic) could have a definitive link to sugar. 14 15
After I found out my dad had cancer, I did a lot of research to help him fight cancer with food. I collated all the information I found, the research-based and the slightly off-the-wall, into a few lists of foods to eat often, sometimes, hardly ever and hopefully never.
I printed out a list for my parents, and I’ve created a PDF for you to print, too.
So it’s not quite as strong of a connection as cigarettes…to cancer. But there’s always something we don’t yet know…
But Even Doctors Don’t Say that We Need a Total Ban on Sugar, Come On!
True. Doctors can be pretty mixed and non-committal when it comes to anything about diet.
But let’s keep the comparison to cigarettes going. When I think about my well-meaning grandparents smoking in the car while driving around my mom, aunt and uncle, it reminds me that what we understand about health changes often.
Even less than 40 years ago, the doctor delivering my husband was smoking a cigarette in one hand and drinking a coffee in the other. I’m not sure how he had any left to catch the baby, but hubby didn’t get dropped on his head so it all worked out. (???!!!)
On the flip side, even less than 2 years ago, hospitals still served sugary drinks in their cafeterias, even though sugar has no nutritional value and may have put many patients in their rooms.
Oh wait…most hospitals still do. The University of Michigan hospitals actually did enact a ban on sugary drinks a year or two ago, which makes me want stand up and applaud them for a huge step in the right philosophical direction. However. Sadly, they replaced the sugary options with ONLY artificially sweetened drinks.
I don’t agree that artificial sweeteners are any healthier, but that will be another battle for another day, I suppose, kind of like switching from cigarettes to chewing tobacco wasn’t a great health solution.
Personal: Why Do I Still Eat the Cookies?
Even though I know all this, when a friend leaves homemade cookies at our house, I don’t throw them away. I eat them.
I still take my kids out for ice cream occasionally and let them eat some of the candy they get at school events and parades.
We have a “one dessert a day” rule in our house, which compared to some seems quite strict and overbearing, but if we had a “one cigarette a day” rule it would be child abuse.
Why do we still eat sugar?
As my husband said, “If my mom had given me cigarettes every day when I was a kid, I’d probably light one up if someone brought them to our house too.”
And as this heated conversation on the KS Facebook page about food stamps and soda demonstrates, it’s not easy to come to agreement on sugar in America, and most of us have grown up with so much brainwashing and habit that it’s nearly impossible to separate wants from needs from evils.
But…I try to play the optimist and believe it’s possible!
Can History Repeat Itself?
My fervent hope – even though it incriminates me and the fact that I still DO feed my children sugar – is that someday, the majority of the culture feels like sugar is as bad as cigarettes.
That someone in that era would catch sight of a family photo of a toddler in a stroller, dripping blue and sticky from the popsicle they’re happily gumming, and gasp in horror:
“Can you believe parents used to give THAT to their kids? And even little tiny ones like that?!? Poor kids…man, they didn’t know much, did they?”
Will it be one decade from now? One generation? What will it take to push the Surgeon General into making another historic report, this time decisively saying that sugar causes disease?
Will Gary Taubes, author of The Case Against Sugar and Why We Get Fat and What to do About It (both found on Amazon) be prophetic for his tireless tirade on sugar, saying this year, “I am a fierce critic of sugar and believe that it, in fact, may have prematurely killed more people than tobacco.” (Read this excellent series of article at the New York Times for more: The Case Against Sugar, Big Sugar’s Secreat Ally: Nutritionists, and If Sugar is Harmless, Prove It.)
If we say, “It’s just one popsicle!” how far away is that from saying, “It’s just one cigarette?”
And really, in a world where the average American consumes nearly a half pound of sugar a day 4 for 15-28% of the total caloric intake 6 13, are we REALLY talking about “just one” anything?
- DiNicolantonia, James J. and Lucan, Sean C. New York Times: Sugar Season. It’s Everywhere, and Addictive.
- Ahmed, Serge H, Guillem, Karine, and Vandaele, Youna. OvidInsights: Sugar addiction: pushing the drug-sugar analogy to the limit
- Avena, Nicole M, Rada, Pedro, and Hoebel, Bartley G. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews: Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake
- WBUR Here & Now: Is Sugar More Addictive Than Cocaine?
- Sifferlin, Alexandra. Time.com: Smoking News to Make You Cringe
- Duchene, Lisa. Penn State News: Probing Question: Is sugar addictive?
- Dam, Katherine. WebMD: The Truth About Sugar
- Schaefer, Anna and Yasin, Kareem. Healthline.com: Experts Agree: Sugar Might be as Addictive as Cocaine
- Noble EE, Hsu TM, Jones R, Fodor AA, Goran MI, Kanoski SE. Journal of Nutrition: Early-Life Sugar Consumption Affects the Rat Microbiome Independently of Obesity
- American College of Cardiology. ScienceDaily: New research exposes health risks of fructose, sugary drinks
- WebMD: 6 Immune System Busters & Boosters
- Hsu TM, Konanur VR, Taing L, Usui R, Kayser BD, Goran MI, Kanoski SE. Hippocampus: Effects of sucrose and high fructose corn syrup consumption on spatial memory function and hippocampal neuroinflammation in adolescent rats.
- DiSalva, David. Psychology Today: What Eating Too Much Sugar Does to Your Brain.
- Cancer Treatment Centers of America: Does sugar ‘feed’ cancer?
- Duchaine et al. BioMed Central: Consumption of sweet foods and mammographic breast density: a cross-sectional study