Should Sugar Be Controlled Like Alcohol? Part II

Lots of interesting feedback on my post on sugar regulation. Some of you have accused me of making straw man arguments; others have used straw man arguments to question my post. So let me take a few minutes to be clear about what I was saying. The article I referenced specifically questioned whether sugar should be regulated like alcohol and tobacco.

We regulate alcohol by making it illegal to use it before the age of 21. Period. We regulate alcohol by making businesses get a specific, and often hard-to-get, license to sell it. Where I live, it’s illegal to sell it on Sunday. We don’t regulate alcohol by limiting the amount you can put in a drink. Any bar can make any drink they like, with as much or as little alcohol as they want.

We regulate tobacco by making it illegal to use it before the age of 18. Period. We regulate it by making businesses sell it in specific areas, often hard-to-get at. It’s illegal to put it in vending machines. But we don’t regulate tobacco by limiting the amount you can put in a cigar. Any cigar maker can put as much or as little tobacco in as they want.

So when someone says that they want to regulate sugar like alcohol or tobacco, that’s what I think of. And it was what they meant, according to reports:

Sugar is so toxic it should be controlled like alcohol, according to new report that goes so far as to suggest setting an age limit of 17 years to buy soda pop.

So I find it so odd that so many of you are coming back at me and saying that you think I’m wrong to disapprove of taxing excessive sugar use. That’s not what I said. I am more than willing to consider studies that examine the effects of such a proposal. In fact, I’ve often thought that we should subsidize things we want to encourage in society and tax things we don’t, so I’m not sure why we’re so fixated on subsidizing sugar and so loathe to tax it. But prove it to me. Show me how the tax will function. Make a case based on evidence.

What I’m not convinced of at all, though, is that we should ban sugar outright for children, make it illegal for me to get it on Sunday, and set up businesses solely for its sale and consumption. And that’s what it means to control sugar like alcohol or tobacco.

Aaron E. Carroll, MD, MS is an associate professor of Pediatrics and the associate director of Children’s Health Services Research at Indiana University School of Medicine, as well as the director of the Center for Health Policy and Professionalism Research.  Carroll’s work has been featured in The New York Times, USA Today, The Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, and many other national publications. He blogs at The Incidental Economist, where this post was originally published.

16 replies »

  1. Oh, I know. I actually meant a whole list of things that should “also” be regulated. I was just trying to make the point that people abuse so many things…for instance yesterday I read an article that teens are inhaling bath salts…

  2. Kaysha, there are many things already regulated that are bad for us. Lead, mercury, radiation, arsenic, exhaust emissions, asbestos, and many more chemicals and toxins. Care to take any of those off the list and turn them over to “personal responsibility”?

  3. Too much of anything is bad for us. If that’s the case, then there is a whole list of things that should be regulated.

  4. “But I do see a danger in any group professing to know what is best for anyone and then using regulatory/police mechanisms to control someones behavior based on the groups ideas of what is best”

    Unfortunately, the fight against sugar and its role in obesity and comorbid medical problems is not any group professing to know what’s best but rather sheer hard fact proven by science over and over again.. ideally, people would be able to control their own sugar (and other forms of consumption proven to be harmful) but I don’t see it out of the range of acceptable for government to do it for them…

    just like tobacco and alcohol.

  5. “Smells of elitism”

    No it smells of good public policy.

    Do favor taxing cigarettes and alcohol for the harm they do and the costs they incur on the public?

    “As Sam said, what types of sugar?”

    All types, like we make no distinction between types of alcohol or cigarettes.

    “There has to be a line where individual rights and responsibilities”

    Have you looked at the obesity and diabetes rates. Does that show “responsibility”? Those rates cost us all in more health care premiums and taxes.

  6. Peter, I dont see conservative or liberal as an element of the discussion.

    But I do see a danger in any group professing to know what is best for anyone and then using regulatory/police mechanisms to control someones behavior based on the groups ideas of what is best. Smells of elitism, no matter which political party you support.

    As Sam said, what types of sugar? What type of policing powers will be required to control the sugar black market? Will the tax be enough to cover the cost to regulate and will any of the tax be used to treat people for sugar dependence?

    Fried chicken could lead to higher rates of obesity, tax it? You drive a classic porshe without airbags, higher tax for lack of safety? You drink well water instead of water certified as having gone through a water treatment plant, pay a higher tax as you may need dental work because there was no floride added? These also may lead to higher costs, regulate these also?

    There has to be a line where individual rights and responsibilities are not subject to infringment based on a behavior that “could” have an impact on society.

    Fun to debate, but let’s hope it stays in the discussion stages.

  7. No James, it’s not that we like the nanny state, it’s that sugar misuse costs all of us in health care. Obesity, diabetes, heart disease, etc. all add costs to the care we all pay for – just like cigarettes and alcohol, in fact alcohol also adds cost to law enforcment. So good conservatives would say, someone has to pay for that. Who are the best people to pay for their own abuses – wouldn’t it be themselves and not us?

  8. Is the premise; a person asks for help because they recognize a need they can not resolve by themselves or does someone/some group, decide the person needs help based on their own criteria and not the express cry for help. Sounds a lot like “We’re from the Government and we’re here to help”.

  9. With freedom comes responsibility. Do we want freedom or do we need structure to help us from hurting ourselves. This is not a size fits all answer. Some people can use the freedom responsibly and some need help.

  10. Sounds great in theory. But in real life, policies that support desirable behavior and suppress undesireable behavior can be a blessing if done where it matters and done right. Not sure if that apllies to sugar.

  11. What kind of sugar? All kinds? Llike corn fructose? Or just cane sugar.

  12. Whatever the state pays for the state will control. This is an iron historical law. If the state funds health care for person x, then the state will , in the long run, dictate behavior to person x, down to the molecular level. The deliberations wonks engage in, over whether we should or should not do this or that, are all pointless. “We” will.

    I’m always amazed when this observation is controversial. It’s as clear as the sky is blue.

    It’s beside the point to offer some snapshot of a country as counter-evidence….it doesn’t matter where Arcadia or Oceana is right now, what matters is their trend. If they are extending social entitlements over time, they are decreasing individual liberty over time. Without exception.

    Back to sugar: should we regulate sugar like alcohol? No. But we will.

  13. Just tax it like we do alcohol and cigarettes. I’d hate to think we’d need to set up a Sugar Control Board to but sweets.

  14. Since many of the people not only in this country, but throughout the world, have some or all of their health care cost picked up by government, those of us who make good decisions about lifestyle choices such as sugar consumption end up having to transfer resources to those who make poor choices. A tax would help to offset this existing redistribution and encourage better choices.

  15. I must admit, I had to laugh reading this post. Why not leave everyone to choose for themselves, why do we need incentives or disincentives, as defined by a sub group, designed to modify behaviour.
    We are individuals with the ability to make both good and bad decisions. We also have the responsibility to live with the repercussions of the bad choices made. That is key, the individual is responsible, not society.