Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Sugar Conspiracy

There's no escaping: Selling junk food on La Septima.
We spend lots of time looking for supposed conspiracies: The Freemasons; The Bilderburg group; the Bush family and 9-11, the Kennedy assassination; the shooting of Colombian politician Jorge Eliecer Gaitán, and on an on.

But they all lack a key ingredient: Evidence.

Yet, the opposite is true of one deadly conspiracy staring us in the face: Big sugar.

It's bad when millions of people get addicted to a substance which can wreck their health. It's even
Junk food and sedentarianism
mean more obesity.
worse when that substance's producers have so much economic and political power that they fight for their right to push it on us.

Sugar's been in the news recently: A recent study found that more than half of Colombians are either overweight or obese - a result of consuming more and more sugary and other junk foods, as well as an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. And research increasingly points to it causing illnesses including diabetes, heart disease and even cancer.

The sugar epidemic cuts short countless lives every year. But even tho sugar harms many more people than do heroin, cocaine or even alcohol, it's advertised constantly and the government does almost nothing about that. Why is that?

Perhaps that's because Big Sugar has so much economic and political power.

Soft drink ads outside a
store in Bogotá.
Yet, paradoxically, in the last couple of years the percent of children suffering acute malnutrition shot up from 0.9% to 2.3%. That could be because children as switching from a traditional diet high in fruits and vegetables to a diet high in processed, sugary foods. The malnutrition was particularly high among indigenous children, whose bodies are not prepared for the sweet, processed food diet they adopt when they come into contact with Western culture.

Soft drink workers protest a proposed tax.
When several Colombian NGOs recently tried to educate consumers about sugar's damages, and a sugar tax was proposed, sugar producers fought back, as detailed in the New York Times. After the Educar Consumidores foundation prepared a television ad linking sugary drinks to obesity and diabetes, soda maker Postobon sued and got the ad removed from television, because it was supposedly 'scientifically imprecise' - and even got a judge to prohibit Educar officials from speaking publicly about the link between sugar and diabetes, according to the Times.  I wonder whether media ever asked soft drink companies to prove their ads' messages that sugary drinks will make you happy and popular, or tobacco makers' messages that smoking would make you sexy. (The Constitutional Court later reversed the judge's ruling.)

A lonely sight: An anti-sugar billboard.
Ironically, it was the Superintendency of Industry and Commerce, supposedly a consumer-protection agency, which got the health ad banned.

Educar's director was also hit with criminal charges for a humorous blog post about sugar, and the
organization's staff reported harrasment, including computer and cellphone problems they suspected were caused by spyware. None of the problems were proven to be linked to the sugary food makers, who deny any wrongdoing.

But what Big Sugar unquestionably did do was flood Colombia's Congress with nearly 100 lobbyists to fight against a proposed sugar tax, an unprecedented political onslaught.

Meanwhile, reports Semana magazine, another NGO, Red Papaz, created a series of ads criticizing
Obesity in Colombian children
has increased in recent years,
and children get fatter
as they get older.
advertising directed at children and urging parents to consider the health impacts of sugary foods. The ads were rejected by some media companies, which claimed that they lacked scientific evidence. (Again, it would be interesting to see how much evidence they seek when companies claim that their car or clothing or deoderant will make you sexy, beautiful or a great athlete.)

"The private stations won't show our commercial," the director of Red Papaz said. "We understand that this is obviously due to industry interests."

The sugar industry doesn't lack influence in media or government. The same conglomerate which owns Postobón also owns RCN Television and radio, and an industry lawyer once headed the nation's consumer protection agency.

Despite its huge size and influence, the sugar industry tries to make us believe that it's the defender of the little guy, such as the corner shopkeeper, who makes part of his income by selling candy, sugary drinks and other vices, such as cigarettes. However, it's a deceptive argument. If Colombians were persuaded to stop paying money to sicken themselves, they'd still spend that money - but maybe on better things, such as clothing, soccer balls and schoolbooks, not to mention fruits and vegetables.

My advice to Big Sugar is not to worry. Fast foods and junk foods and their advertising are so prevalent that we can't escape. And Red Papaz's campaign is sadly insignificant and poorly designed.

I happened to spot a Red Papaz ad link on The New York Times' website. How many Colombians,
Big cola, big calories.
particularly overweight Colombian children, read the Times? I also spotted one anti-sugar billboard high above Calle 26. In contrast, nearly every store features posters pushing candy and soft drinks, along crowded Carrera Septima, young people wearing billboards hand out flyers for McDonald's treats, and seemingly every corner in Bogotá hosts a street vendor hawking candies and cigarettes.

With saturation advertising like that, health education doesn't stand a chance.

The New York Times just published a big report about the North America Free Trade Agreement's destructive inflluence on Mexicans' health. Prominent in that is the Oxxo junk food store chain, a leading purveyor of sugary, salty and highly processed foods (not to mention alcohol) in Mexico, and which is proliferating fast in Colombia. There are already about a half-dozen Oxxos just in La Candelaria.

Afterthought: All of this is actually an argument in favor of prohibitionism. Prohibitionism hasn't stopped the consumption of drugs, sex or alcohol - but it does at least clamp down on the advertising of such 'vices.'

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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