Tom O'Connor: It's not called 'white death' for nothing
June 13, 2017
OPINION: Few people realise just how much we are manipulated by big business and international corporations to buy their products and add to their profits regardless of the often tragic consequences.
The tobacco industry knew for decades that its products were addictive and lethal but fought tooth and nail to avoid restrictions and warnings to protect its vulnerable customers from the products the industry knew would kill millions of them. It employed movie stars and other celebrities to promote smoking long after it was known that tobacco causes lung cancer and many other terminal illnesses.
We now have a legal regime which will require clear warnings on all tobacco products and a steady increase in taxation designed to eventually wean the public off this most dangerous weed.
Similarly the alcohol industry has employed clever, and no doubt very costly, marketing experts to subtly associate alcohol to almost every form of sporting activity and to make alcohol more attractive to young people. The clear, if unspoken, message is that no one can have any real fun without alcohol. The visual message of healthy, sophisticated and beautiful young people enjoying a drink with almost every recreational activity, from rugby to a day on the beach or fishing, is far from reality.
A more accurate image of alcohol perhaps should be a lonely drunk on a park bench drinking himself to oblivion with cheap booze bought with the last few dollars of his benefit, a fatal car wreck or a family in total disarray with fighting, drunk parents and neglected children.
The truth probably lies somewhere between those extremes but the industry cares more about profits than the wellbeing of customers. It always has but governments and communities worldwide are at last applying some long overdue safety measures.
It is probably now time for the government and the community to turn their attention to another addictive and dangerous substance: sugar. It has not been called "white death" for nothing.
Few people would doubt the wisdom of prohibiting school children from having access to alcohol and tobacco at school or at home but we allow schools to sell drinks and foods which are overloaded with artificially high levels of cane sugar. Some so-called soft drinks contain up to 25% of dissolved sugar, and that is no accident. Manufacturers have known for decades that sugar is as addictive as alcohol and tobacco and equally dangerous to the health of young and old alike.
While so called "diet" drinks may seem like a responsible response to the problem of too much sugar in the diet of young people, they do not address the real issue of addiction to oversweet foodstuffs and may in fact be worse than sugar. A recent study by the prestigious Imperial College in Britain has shown that sugar-free and diet drinks are not helpful for weight loss and could even cause people to put on weight.
A review of dozens of studies dating back 30 years found that there is no evidence that sugar-free alternatives prevent weight gain, type 2 diabetes or help maintain a healthy body mass index (BMI).
Although artificially sweetened beverages contain fewer calories than sugary versions, researchers say they still trigger sweet receptors in the brain, which may make people crave food. Coupled with the fact that most people view diet drinks as healthier, it could lead to over-consumption, they say.
Professor Christopher Millett, senior investigator from Imperial's School of Public Health, has warned that artificially sweetened beverages should not be promoted as part of a healthy diet.
He said that it was a common perception, which may be influenced by industry marketing, that because so-called diet drinks have no sugar, they must be healthier and aid weight loss when used as a substitute for full sugar versions.
This timely warning confirms what many GPs, parents and teachers have known for some time.
Unless or until we recognise that fatty, sugar-loaded fast foods and drinks are as hazardous to growing children as alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs, we will quickly run out of health dollars to deal with the consequences.
There is a line between undue intrusion in the private lives of children and their families and unmitigated market forces. If we can impose restrictions on the sale of alcohol and tobacco to safeguard children, we can do the same with other unhealthy products. All it takes is the will and courage to choose between large, powerful corporates and our children's wellbeing. That is a no-brainer really.