Should sugar be classified in the same category as heroin?

Should sugar be classified in the same category as heroin?
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Most people are aware of the types of drugs that are federally classified as substances with no medicinal benefit and high abuse potential: heroin, LSD and marijuana are examples of these drugs and they are indeed classified as illegal. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are the two government agencies responsible for classifying drugs.

The FDA recently received a Citizen Petition for Stricter Regulation of Added Sugar "to amend the Drug Schedules to include added sugar to either Schedule I or Schedule II of the Controlled Substances Act." This idea is not new to many members of the medical community who believe that sugar is a poison.

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The implications of scheduling sugar may run deeper and command more gravitas, than one might think. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. is experiencing an obesity epidemic that results in premature deaths and billions of added healthcare costs to manage diabetes, heart disease and obesity-induced joint destruction.

 

Sugar unquestionably adds to the prevalence of obesity in America. Therefore, every food product that includes sugar may be contributing to the scope and costs of the obesity epidemic and is accelerating the volume of premature deaths among millions of Americans.

Robert Lustig, a specialist on pediatric hormone disorders and a leading expert in childhood obesity, popularized the claim that sugar is a poison in his “Sugar: The Bitter Truth” lecture."

According to a New York Times Magazine article, "Is Sugar Toxic?," Lustig has taken a leadership role in blaming sugar for the increase in obesity and diabetes.

He holds sugar at least partly responsible for the prevalence of many diseases, implicating high-fructose corn syrup (which is actually fructose and glucose) as well sucrose (refined sugar). Studies with laboratory rats, the results of which may also hold true for humans, have convinced him that sugar is toxic.

Time sums up this research, "Lustig and his colleagues think they’ve produced the 'hard and fast data that sugar is toxic irrespective of its calories and irrespective of weight.' "

However, there has been controversy surrounding the toxicity of sugar. According to a EcoWatch article, for the past 50 years, the sugar industry has manipulated the science to exonerate sugar and shift the blame to fat for causing disease. The article contends academic scientists were complicit in persuading people to get more of their calories from sugar rather than from fats.

Minimally, many people do seem to crave sugar. Dr. David Samadi, writing for the Huffington Post, says that sugar affects the brain in much the same way as heroin and cocaine. In that sense, he says, sugar is an addictive drug.

In fact, sugar may be as addictive as other substances that are scheduled 1 by the FDA and DEA. Many of us experience great pleasure from eating sweets and continue to ingest them despite the harm they may cause.

This is the classic definition of an addiction. For example, some people claim they are addicted to chocolate; maybe, in fact, they are.

It's likely that some of us who would refuse to misuse — or even use — highly scheduled drugs continue to perceive the dangers of sugar in a different light than other risky substances. Maybe our perceptions should change.

The CDC has estimated the number of deaths that are attributable to obesity each year to be between 112,000 and 365,000, depending on the calculation. Even if we conservatively take the lesser number, that still represents 3-4 times more deaths than the number of opioid-related deaths in the U.S.

What the FDA and DEA will do with the Citizen Petition for Stricter Regulation of Added Sugar is unknown. However, it is possible that the petition may eventually lead to a class action lawsuit against sugar manufacturers and soft drink producers and their distributors. Has industry been forthright with the American public about the potential harm of sugar? Time will tell.

Meanwhile, we know sugar is a rewarding substance that is abused by millions of Americans every day and has contributed to more than 1 million deaths in the past decade. It will be interesting to see how the debate will evolve and how political and social forces will influence the outcome.

Fortunately, sugar affects all of us differently and for many people it is neither addictive or deadly. Just like many other substances that carry inherent risk, sugar can be safely used in moderation by most people without wreaking havoc on their lives or contributing to their premature deaths.

Lynn R. Webster, M,D. is a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with Pharma. He is a former president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine. Webster is the author of “The Painful Truth: What Chronic Pain Is Really Like and Why It Matters to Each of Us.” You can find him on Twitter at @LynnRWebsterMD.