NEW YORK -- Refined sugar is the world's most popular and widely used drug. (Webster's Dictionary defines a drug as a "chemical substance used to alter the state of body or mind.")
We don't usually think of sugar and other favorite stimulants such as coffee or tea as "drugs," but they all have marked effects on the human body.
The UN's World Health Organization has launched an international campaign to cut consumption of refined sugar, which it says is the principal culprit in the current epidemic of obesity and its associated diseases, diabetes and cardiovascular disorders.
Americans, who comprise only 5% of the world's population, account for a whopping 33% of total global sugar consumption - over 10 million tons annually.
According to the WHO, over half of Americans are overweight and 31% - 38.8 million people - are obese. Obesity rates in children have risen 50% in recent years.
Americans have become sugar junkies and, sad to say, a nation of fatties, the world's most overweight people. Europeans laugh at obese American tourists as they waddle down the street.
It's hard to find any processed food products these days without some form of added sugars: sucrose, dextrose, fructose, corn syrup, maltodextrin. A can of pop can easily contain eight tablespoons of refined sugar. France and Australia have been forced to produce sweeter wines to cater to the sugar-craving U.S. market. Carbohydrates, the basic material for all breads, potatoes, cakes and snack foods, are quickly converted by the body into simple sugar, and then stored as fat.
Incredibly, the Bush administration is strongly opposing the WHO's campaign to limit sugar intake to 10% of total caloric consumption. President George Bush seems to think lots of sugar is just dandy.
Critics of Bush see this as yet another example of the radical, far-right ideology of his administration, which seems never to have seen a tree it did not want to cut down, an animal it did not want to shoot, or a park it did not want to pave.
But there's much more here than just Cro-Magnon anti-environmentalism. The brilliant Republican strategist Kevin Phillips wrote in American Conservative that his party has gone from being a small-government conservative movement to a collection of special interests feeding off and backing ever bigger government. Sugar is a prime example.
Even though Bush's home state of Texas has some of the highest rates of obesity, heart disease and diabetes in the U.S., the president and his men insist heavy sugar consumption does not cause disease.
The U.S. secretary of health actually claims, in the face of a mountain of scientific evidence to the contrary, that it's fine to get 25% of one's calories from refined sugar!
The real reason for the administration's preposterous position is that the powerful U.S. sugar industry is one of its biggest financial backers, and a major power in the key electoral state of Florida. The sugar industry is also one of Washington's most successful lobby groups and a huge contributor to congressmen and senators of both parties.
The result: the federal government subsidizes U.S. sugar producers to the tune of $1.4 billion US annually. Import restrictions protect them from foreign competition and keep domestic sugar prices three or four times higher than world prices. Sugar remains the nation's most heavily subsidized crop at almost $500 per acre per annum.
So American consumers pay inflated prices for sugar while tiny West Indian sugar-producing islands, that depend on the crop, are shut out of the U.S. market. Worse, sugar cultivation has damaging environmental effects. In Florida, 500,000 acres of the Everglades wetlands, one of America's natural treasures, have been destroyed to make room for growing sugar.
Joining the sugar industry in opposing the WHO campaign are America's biggest food and drink producers, led by the mighty Coca-Cola Company, and sugar exporting nations.
Instead of setting a positive example for the rest of the world by nudging Americans to lower their sugar consumption, the Bush administration seems to see UN efforts as some sort of nefarious foreign plot.
But action is urgently needed: the UN found that 60% of disease worldwide is now caused by cardiovascular ailments, which are directly linked to over-consumption of sugar, saturated and trans-fats, and increasing lack of exercise caused by too much TV viewing.
All developed nations face this problem to varying degrees. In the Middle East, Pakistan and India, over-consumption of fats and sugar are now the gravest public health problem after malnutrition. But no one wants to give up their beloved pastries, sweet tea or fatty mutton.
This column does not like government intervention in people's lives. Years ago, when the anti-smoking jihad began, I wrote that fatty burgers killed 10 times more people than cigarettes and, logically, should also be banned.
But the sugar epidemic has become such a peril to public health that government should act. Not to confiscate sugar from people's homes, but to end sugar subsidies, ban all advertising of sugar-laden products to children, get soft drinks out of schools, and educate Americans about the perils of too much refined sugar.
Copyright © 2004, CANOE