Not many people would argue that Prohibition in the United States was anything short of a disaster. This constitutional amendment, in effect from 1920 to 1933, was intended to ban the sale, production, importation and transportation of alcoholic beverages and has been blamed for everything from the rise of bootlegging to the formation of the Mafia to a long list of documented spikes in violent crime. As one scholar wrote, “Americans were not prepared to give up alcohol. Beating Prohibition became a national pastime.”
Banning tobacco ads from television and other media are further examples of America’s well-intended attempts to curb addictive behavior by making it harder for the user to use. Now, as rule-making bodies such as local city councils and school boards consider imposing a variety of bans or restrictions on sugar, sugar-laden foods and other junk food, it’s time to revisit the concept of prohibition. We need to ask whether making sugar forbidden will, in fact, help the food addict or reduce the incidence of food addiction. Or would banning sugar-laden, highly-processed foods instead lead to some of the same outcomes as banning alcohol did?
Unfortunately, those who decide whether to institute a ban on sugar are typically not food addicts, nor do they understand the physiology of food addiction. Both proponents and opponents of sugar bans talk about reducing the size of sugar drinks, cutting the number of sugar grams in foods — in essence pointing us toward moderation of sugar. These banning initiatives do not take into account the addiction dynamic that may be feeding the intense demand for sugar, despite growing public awareness of its negative health consequences.
Those of us who work in the field of addiction treatment know from years of dealing with addicts that an addict will always find a way to get his or her drug. We also know from the failure of Prohibition and the more recent “War on Drugs,” that choking off the supply of an addictive substance does little to reduce the demand for that substance. Ironically, labeling a substance forbidden fruit can actually make it more desirable. (Just ask Adam and Eve.)
To Ban or Not to Ban?
So where does this leave those of us who work in the field of food addiction? Oddly, some of us are left with one foot in the “ban sugar” camp and one in the “don’t ban sugar” camp. First, I agree with proponents of banning, restricting or in some way regulating access to sugary foods, especially in schools. Young people’s brains are not fully developed, so the impact of the early use of excess sugar is uncertain but might lead to a lifetime of problems. I agree with pro-ban advocates that doing anything to reduce the world’s intake of sugars and junk foods is worth trying, given the gravity of the global obesity and diabetes epidemics. There is also growing public awareness and acceptance of the addictiveness of sugar.
In addition, there is data to support sugar bans as being useful. For example, a 1998 experiment at a Georgia elementary school involved parents and educators to create a “sugar-free zone” for kids. The results were impressive; in one year, the average weight of students dropped, general health improved, delinquency rates dropped and test scores rose.
I, and some of my colleagues, also understand, though, that the contention among those who oppose banning sugar and junk foods that making it harder (or at least inconvenient) to get sugar among those who are not addicted encroaches on personal freedom. These bans, they assert, also might do little to ameliorate the problems of obesity and its related diseases, such as hypertension, diabetes and joint deterioration. The arguments in this camp are more in line with my understanding of addiction. They also reflect the learnings from failed experiments to limit access to alcohol and tobacco in order to “cure” substance abuse. As one Canadian obesity doctor writes, “If people really want something (like sugar …), they’ll find ways to get it. So making something ‘illegal’ is meaningless.”
The best example that validates the power of regulation and restricted access is tobacco. Cigarette smoking has declined significantly in the U.S. But has this come about simply because of warnings on packaging and restrictions on sales to minors? I doubt it. I think it has more to do with public information campaigns that have succeeded in stigmatizing smoking. Peer approval has been shown to be the most significant factor towards changing a teenager’s – the most vulnerable customer – decision to smoke or abstain. This has played a far bigger role than seeing horrific pictures on the cigarette box or being carded when getting cigarettes at the corner store. Smoking just isn’t sexy anymore.
We need more research into the effectiveness of cleaning up our “toxic food environment” — a term coined by Dr. Kelly D. Brownell — through bans, restrictions and regulations. A logical place to begin is by studying the behavior of recovered food addicts. By searching for the nuggets of insight in their sometimes outrageous anecdotal attempts to stop using food as a drug by imposing their own bans — padlocking the refrigerator, sewing their mouths shut, giving up TV, avoiding bakeries — perhaps we’ll learn how well bans work specifically for food.
I have hope that the shifting public views towards sugar may be the strategic entry point towards real and effective change. Big tobacco as the evil enemy has been replaced by the junk food industry as public health enemy number one. Why not push this envelope further and make the eating of sugar-laden deserts, junk food and all-you-can-eat buffets less appealing than they are now? How can we make natural food cool, sexy and fun? We wouldn’t need to ban an unhealthy substance if it was easier and more socially acceptable to engage in a healthier lifestyle.
Additional research by Christine Palmer