Is sugar the new tobacco? The industry’s lobbying tactics suggest so

Hundreds of thousands of pounds a month are being spent on political lobbying


A couple of years ago to ask whether ‘sugar was the new tobacco’ was considered a vexatious question, outside of mainstream opinion. But events of the last year have made it a politically salient issue.  And the food and soft drinks industry’s response bears many similarities to that of the tobacco industry.

The latest National Diet and Nutrition Study data shows we’re all still consuming far too much sugar: younger children exceeding the Government’s recommended maximum daily sugar intake by more than double, and 11‐18 year‐olds by almost three times.

Our collective sweet tooth has had a lot of encouragement. The ubiquity of sugar, added into much of our food and drink, makes it hard to avoid. For decades manufacturers have sought to perfect the sweetness profile of their products to make them ever more appealing to us.  

In addition – as research shows – marketing budgets, retail promotions and the use of child-friendly licensed and brand characters are all heavily skewed to products high in fat, salt or sugar.  This results in an obesogenic environment, nudging people towards less healthy choices and glamourising sugary ones, much in the same way that the tobacco industry once operated.

At a recent debate at London South Bank University, academics and students were in near-unanimous agreement that sugar counted as an addictive substance. Among the arguments put forward were that sugar has a double whammy effect: there’s the emotional or psychological side of eating sugar foods, tapping into our brain’s reward and pleasure functions; and there’s physiological side of what sugar does inside our bodies, the effects on the liver, and on an endocrinal level.

Just under a year ago, Public Health England issued its evidence-backed recommendations for action on sugar reduction, followed by the Health Select Committee’s report into the issue.

The government has acted too: first, with Osborne’s Budget announcement of a sugary drinks tax (or Soft Drinks Industry Levy to give it its official title); and in August with the launch of a slimmed down Childhood Obesity Strategy, which included voluntary reformulation targets and confirmed the new Government’s support for the Levy.

To every action, a reaction. The food and soft drinks industry is fighting back, trying to protect itself from what it sees as unnecessary regulation and taxation, which affect how they do business.  

They are challenging the academic and scientific evidence, commissioning their own reports, showcasing their efforts to improve, and employing the services of a highly paid public affairs consultancy to help lobby politicians. The amount of money they appear to have spent just in September alone is several hundred thousand pounds.

It isn’t just the scale of campaigning and co-ordination between companies which echoes tobacco industry’s tactics at moments of crisis.  The messaging, emphasising the economic impact on the industry and denigrating other countries’ efforts, is similar too; as is the involvement of big corporations behind the scenes.

The biggest cheerleader for the recent ‘independent retailer’ day of action against the sugary drinks tax was a senior executive from Coca Cola.  

Meanwhile, People Against Sugar Tax and The Taxpayers Alliance, bullish sugar-tax naysayers, adopt dubious names to associate themselves with populist credentials, and try to paint opponents as extreme ‘Nanny Staters’ – another well-established strategy.

The tobacco industry itself is more than a by-stander. As the Tobacco Tactics researchers have revealed, the Institute of Economic Affairs – a vocal opponent of a sugary drinks tax – has received funding from and are known to have been working closely with tobacco companies for many years.

The benign-sounding Action on Consumer Choice is another anti-sugary drinks tax outfit directly funded by the tobacco industry. And the corporate affairs team of Imperial Tobacco are now directly entering the debate, decrying as “propaganda” press stories about the need for sugar reduction.

History suggests that ultimately such efforts will fail. But that takes time. With obesity and type two diabetes in England costing more each year to treat than is spent on police and fire services and the judicial system, combined, it seems particularly pertinent to question who benefits from the current state of weak regulation and lack of a sugary drinks tax, and who is paying the price.

Malcolm Clark is co-ordinator of the Children’s Food Campaign. A project of charity Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming, it advocates for a sugary drinks tax as part of comprehensive strategy to make healthy and sustainable food and drink more affordable, available and visible than less healthy products currently are. 

As you’re here, we have something to ask you. What we do here to deliver real news is more important than ever. But there’s a problem: we need readers like you to chip in to help us survive. We deliver progressive, independent media, that challenges the right’s hateful rhetoric. Together we can find the stories that get lost.

We’re not bankrolled by billionaire donors, but rely on readers chipping in whatever they can afford to protect our independence. What we do isn’t free, and we run on a shoestring. Can you help by chipping in as little as £1 a week to help us survive? Whatever you can donate, we’re so grateful - and we will ensure your money goes as far as possible to deliver hard-hitting news.

4 Responses to “Is sugar the new tobacco? The industry’s lobbying tactics suggest so”

  1. Tony

    The tobacco industry had a wonderfully mendacious argument: putting cigarettes in plain packaging would not affect sales.
    So why oppose legislation on the matter?
    And why not just sell them in plain packages in the first place?

  2. auto headliner

    Superb difficulties altogether, you only need to earned a new . auto headlineraudience. Precisely what might you highly recommend regarding your current publish that you simply built some days previously? Almost any constructive?

  3. Marmot review finds ten years of Tories has had "shocking" impact on health of poorest | Left Foot Forward

    […] following campaigning from secretively-funded right-wing lobby groups like the Institute of Economic …, Boris Johnson has announced he will review the sugar tax. Will one of the only saving graces of […]

  4. Marmot review finds ten years of Tories has had “shocking” impact on health of poorest – LeftInsider

    […] following campaigning from secretively-funded right-wing lobby groups like the Institute of Economic …, Boris Johnson has announced he will review the sugar tax. Will one of the only saving graces of […]

Comments are closed.