Soda Is Following in Tobacco's Shady Footsteps

Soda and tobacco are more alike than you might realize. Not only are they both partially responsible for national health epidemics, they also share an intricately connected history. Sugar and tobacco workers are even represented by the same union.

Peter Moskowitz

Peter Moskowitz

Photo via Flickr user The Adventures of Kristin

On Tuesday, when basically every other progressive cause across the US took a shellacking, Berkeley voters passed the nation's first soda tax.

The hippy-dippy California city's ballot initiative places a penny-per-ounce tax on pretty much any drink that contains added sugar: soda, those huge cans of Arizona iced tea, Vitaminwater...you get the idea.

A penny per ounce may seem insignificant, but when you consider it would raise the price of a 2-liter bottle of Coke from about $2 to $2.64, that might be enough to dissuade customers from buying it, and that's exactly the idea.

The tax has significant ramifications for Berkeley's population, but the implications for the rest of the US might be larger. In 2012, researchers from the University of California San Francisco found that if a penny-per-ounce tax were instituted nationwide, 8,000 strokes, 240,000 cases of diabetes, and 100,000 cases of heart disease could be prevented annually.

"This isn't about one city," said Maureen Erwin, an activist affiliated with a similar soda tax campaign in San Francisco that garnered the majority of the votes on Tuesday, but still failed to pass because it required a two-thirds majority. "This is a long-term movement, and the dominoes are going to start falling."

Anti-soda campaigners hope that in the same way tobacco started to become highly-taxed and highly stigmatized about 50 years ago, soda can be similarly regulated and "denormalized."

Soda—and more specifically its main ingredient, sugar—and cigarettes are more alike than you may think. Not only are the two both partially responsible for health epidemics across the country, they actually share an intricately connected history. And because their history and their effects are so similar, anti-soda campaigners are hoping they share one more similarity: that both industries can both be brought down via the same methods.

To get a better sense of how the soda and tobacco industries are similar, and how they might suffer the same fate, I talked with Robert Proctor. He's a professor of the history of science at Stanford University and the first historian ever to testify against tobacco companies in front of Congress. He's written several books on how tobacco companies have bent science and policy to their will, the best-known of which is Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition.

MUNCHIES: Aren't cigarettes and soda too different to be compared? Cigarettes are a pure addiction. Soda isn't exactly necessary for life, but it's a liquid, and liquids are necessary for life. Robert Proctor: Tobacco was viewed essentially as a food, too. It was given with C-Rations and K-Rations. You used to get cigarettes as part of your meal on an airplane. You need food, but you don't need sugar added to foods. Until the 19th century, there was very little sugar added to foods. There was no such thing as [mass produced] soda, ice cream, candy bars—those were all invented in the 19th century.

So how big of a deal is this Berkeley tax? In a way it's the beginning of the end of chronic sugar-based obesity. Until now there really hasn't been a municipality that has been willing to tax soda purely for health reasons. Given that we know that sugar is one of the leading causes of obesity, especially in the form of added sugar, this could have a huge impact on human health. So it seems tiny but it's really giant. I think it's also significant that it won by 75 percent. That's a huge margin and it means it won't be difficult to replicate anywhere.

Are you sure? The soda industry rightfully points out that similar measures have failed in about 30 municipalities before. The times are changing. Three or four years ago it was really easy to trivialize the issue, but the obesity epidemic has really come to the forefront of national attention. The roots of the obesity epidemic go back to the 19th century, but it's really taken off thanks to the addition to high fructose corn syrup, the ramped-up marketing of soda and candy, and also the takeover of cafeterias by private corporations that like to push soda as a high-profit-margin product. There's clearly something that's changed with the modern diet.

Awareness is also increasing. People are starting to point fingers more, and they're looking upstream. It's one thing to blame bad habits, but there are causes, and there are causes of causes. That's like what happened with tobacco. People used to blame the smoker, then they blamed the cigarette, then they finally blamed the tobacco companies.

How exactly is this soda fight similar to the fight against Big Tobacco? One of the most important similarities is the role of the American Beverage Association—the principal trade association of the soda industry. They're using many similar techniques to those used by the tobacco industry in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. From denying the science, to trying to create their own science, to establishing their own front groups to give the appearance of a groundswell of opposition to these kinds of taxes. The tobacco industry did the same thing. They'd establish "citizens councils" that were supposed to be grassroots pro-smoker organizations but they were really backed by the tobacco industry. And both [soda and tobacco] claim to be defending the liberty of consumers against the tyranny of government.

How did they come to use such similar tactics? I know that sugar and cigarettes have kind of similar histories. Can you tell me about that? You had new forms of electric sugar processing in the late 19th century, plus modern forms of mechanization and packaging. That led to an enormous increase in sugar consumption. Until you could cap bottles, you didn't have soda bottles.Those don't even arise until the end of the 19th century. Then you get the tobacco industry touting cigarettes as a cure to the sugar epidemic. The tobacco industry had the "Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet" campaign. They were saying have a cigarette as almost a therapy during a rising obesity epidemic in the early 20th century. The confectionery industry sued in response.

Then you have candy cigarettes. They're sold in the same place as real cigarettes because they both appeal to the same guilt, the same feeling of naughty pleasure. The candymakers would copy identically packs of real cigarettes for the candy cigarettes and the cigarette makers would supply them with artwork to make sure the packaging looked identical. There was a secret memo from one of the top lawyers for the tobacco companies that said candy cigarettes are, "not too bad an advertisement for our product."

Sugar and tobacco workers are also represented by the same union.

There's another connection. In the 1950s, the first executive director of the Tobacco Industry Research Committee actually came from the Sugar Foundation. Those were both scientific front groups that produced denialist science about their products.

And sugar is actually one of the most important compounds in cigarettes. It's important in determining the inhalability of smoke. By the 1940s and 50s, the tobacco industry knew that sugar and nicotine were the two most important compounds in cigarettes. But for the sugar in cigarettes, there'd be no lung cancer epidemic. In the 1980s, the first great whistleblower was Victor Denoble. He worked at Philip Morris on a floor of the research laboratory where all the windows were darkened with black paint. His team's job was basically to make nicotine super-addictive, and they determined that sugar was key to how addictive cigarettes were because sugar produces acetaldehyde. When that's combined with nicotine it produces this dopamine synergy in the brain and that makes cigarettes super-addictive. As a result of that research, Philip Morris was able to optimize the balance of sugar and nicotine in cigarettes.

What's an example of the soda or sugar industry using some of these shady techniques today? The sugar industry is now saying calories are all that matter [which is scientifically untrue]. Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign was captured by the sugar industry and turned into a pro-exercise campaign instead of an anti-sugar campaign.

So if the industries are similar, can they be fought in the same way? They already are being fought in the same way. Sugar is being exposed. Sunshine is the best disinfectant. But that's hard to do. Soda companies spent $13 million on the anti-tax campaigns in San Francisco and Berkeley campaigns.

Another way to fight is limiting availability. If you've got cigarettes in every vending machine, and vending machines around every school, and advertisements on every television set, that makes it very easy and convenient to continue the product. But if it's denormalized, that's the turning point. What's happening now is we're seeing a denormalization of soda. I used to go to faculty meetings at Stanford and there used to be sodas everywhere. Now there aren't. People are drinking water.

Taxes can go pretty far, too. The less soda you drink, the better, and the more you tax it, the less you drink it.

Thanks for speaking with me, Robert.