Is Big Sugar the Next Liability Target?

Growing paranoia is the hallmark of the aging process for me.  Although I am a generally affable sort (I know, it doesn’t always seem that way from my writing), I am also a fairly suspicious person.  I am starting to think that all the food industry’s sweet talk about the innocence of sugar is really just icing on a toxic cake and that we’ve all been sold a bill of goods.  In particular, I wonder — and part of me hopes — that Big Sugar might soon replace Big Tobacco as the favorite target of our most underappreciated and misunderstood national resource…the plaintiff’s bar.  There is no question we eat way too much sugar and that the increase in consumption has coincided nicely with both our rise in obesity and decline in health status even though we are living longer.

Not that I think the Tobacco Settlement (TS) was great social policy.  You can read my full view here; but, to summarize, as an immigrant and a person of color, a part of me resents the TS because all it did is push the burden of fulfillment of the financial terms into the hearts and lungs of people in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.  The smug satisfaction of tobacco opponents in the US and their glib dismissal of the impact on predominantly poor people of color around the world is first order racism.

Any analogous move against Big Sugar (BS) could be quite interesting.  There is, of course, the delectable duality of “what did they know and when did they know it?”.  Recently published opinions and data have forced me to think harder about just what goes on in the labs of companies like Coca Cola, Pepsi, Kellogg’s, Nestle, Domino, Mars, Hershey’s, etc.  No doubt BS defenders will say that sugar is “all natural” (ahem, so is tobacco), and safe when used as intended…and, that is where things will start to go awry for them.

There are two things wrong with the last claim.  First, we have never defined a threshold level of safe for added sugars and so cannot really connect what might or might not be safe to the way that people typically use the products.  The way that people typically use the products is decided for them, because most added sugars in the diet are not what’s sprinkled into coffee or onto cereal, but what’s embedded in packaged ready-eat-foods where there is no consumer dose control.  Second, what if the companies (singly or in collusion) really have mastered product manipulation in ways that stimulate the brain’s reward centers so that use of a product as they intend (i.e., a serving size) actually results in both an override of innate control mechanisms and a dose they intend will drive further consumption.  I don’t know, but I am getting more and more suspicious by the day, and I hope that some smart, aggressive trial lawyers share my curiosity.  I am especially intrigued by my own body’s reaction to eating fewer added sugars, as I try to lose a few pounds to enhance my running.  The less of it I eat, the less of it I want.  Hmmm.

The market cap of Nestle alone is 65% greater than the market cap of Philip Morris, and Nestle’s sales are almost triple on a worldwide basis.  If you add in all the other players on this stage, you start to see the seeds of potential for a huge play against BS.  It won’t be easy to show that they’ve made false and deceptive claims or corrupted politicians and bureaucrats who should have been regulating them instead of coddling them.  But, it might be a worthwhile pursuit because the amount of money available could dwarf the TS.  Part of the case ought to also pursue the nutritionists, dietitians, athletes, celebrities, and physicians who consult to the industry and appear on all manner of media providing warm and fuzzy words of comfort that sugary foods have a place in a well-rounded diet.  Let’s not forget that physicians once appeared in ads telling people that smoking was okay, too.

No pot of gold for feckless state politicians or indolent hospital administrators this time around.  Now, I see a very useful conduit for the money secured in any settlement: I want the feds to agree to restructure farm subsidies and have all of the gains from this kind of case go directly to subsidizing production of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, all of which Americans need to eat more of.  The feds should also specifically allow suits to be brought against the US government if the monies are not used as intended, and agree to put every cent’s worth of disbursement up on the web.

Mayor Nitwit, er, sorry, Mayor Bloomberg of New York, has it all wrong (really worthy of a whole, separate upcoming column).  Regulating the size of the cup into which the drink goes is not the issue.  We need to know more — and we may need lots of discovery to demonstrate it — about the development and marketing of what’s going into the cup.

Vik Khanna is a St. Louis-based independent health consultant with extensive experience in managed care and wellness.  An iconoclast to the core, he is the author of the Khanna On Health Blog.  He is also the Wellness Editor-At-Large for THCB.

15 replies »

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  4. We do eat too much sugar but I think what we don’t do is enough exercise. Top level cricketers for instance often eat lollies to give them an energy boost. The problem comes when you eat lollies and don’t burn the sugar content off with exercise.

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  6. Vik:

    Excellent post…I hope they add high fructose corn syrup as well. I’m sure many have seen the “Bitter Truth” video on YouTube. What the food companis do to manipulate food is shameful and maybe criminal.

    Until we aress diet, all of the great ideas on this blog amount to re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

  7. Just tax it, like we do alcohol. The sugar subsidy protects high prices here in U.S. so lets’ get some of that back for creating disease.

  8. In all honesty, I would rather not see huge class actions because they usually only benefit the attorneys. (I worked briefly in research on asbestos class actions in the 90s and learned something about who gets what.) If people want to poison themselves with this stuff, more power to ’em. I just want the purveyors to come clean about the nutritional content and ingredients. Out here in CA, the state required restaurants to add calorie counts (big surprise in CA, I know) to menus, but that has since be suspended due to potential conflict with a similar federal law that is part of the ACA. Just tell us what we’re shoving down, please, and we may still choose to gorge!

  9. “Big Sugar might soon replace Big Tobacco as the favorite target ”

    So many class-action lawsuits to file, so little time…

  10. David, I like the way that you think. I am all for it. I know that I love fast food, and I virtually never eat it for precisely the reason that you describe.

  11. Hey Vik,

    Interesting question you pose. In recent years, sugar has leaped ahead of what I expected to be the next big product liability class action: fast food. I’m neither an attorney nor a student of tobacco litigation, but from a very high level the peddling of fast food seemed to have the same hallmarks as that of tobacco–mostly natural product perfectly adulterated to create a hankerin’ for more as soon as that last bite enters the belly. You mention the science of desire–the pursuit of perfect “mouthfeel” and truly ideal salt/sugar/fat combinations that rival crack for addictiveness–which fast food has pursued in parallel and in cooperation with big sugar. Any reason why the lawyerin down in Texas’ Golden Triangle can’t include Mickey Ds and Burger King in the near future?

  12. You may well be right – I’m sure some very interesting details are about to come to light when the details come out – but the cloud over football’s future as an organized sport remains, Hard to see how economically strapped school districts and universities are going to be able to take the risk – with the mountains of dollars lying around at the big sports schools, the suits are going to be lining up at the stadium gates to sign ’em up …

    But I digress, back to your point. I think you may be on to something. (I’m not so sure we’re going to see nutritionists and celebrity spokespeople halled before the courts any time soon. It would certainly be entertaining!!!) But It’s interesting to story board out how something like this would go down and what the implications would be.

  13. Thanks, John. Have not read the NFL settlement yet, but I would guess that it precludes any future lawsuits by players. Clearly, the NFL saw writing on the wall that litigation would not serve its financial growth and sought the least contentious and least expensive way out. Speaks volumes to what their internal projects must have shown losses at litigation might have been.