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Posted March 2014

Media campaign against sugar - If we accept that language shapes the way we think (and the thought police that watch over our politically correct language certainly do), then several industries had better prepare for a new discursive onslaught. It comes by the term “addiction industries”.

Until recently, this term was a new one to me. When I first saw it on spinwatch.org, a UK site devoted to “investigate the way that the public relations (PR) industry and corporate and government propaganda distort public debate and undermine democracy” (their brief), it took me a while to realise that they had not even put it in inverted commas. It was not meant ironically and it certainly did not leave any room for doubt. It just stood there in a matter-of-fact way. You had to take it for granted.

When I began my research into the term, I soon saw that it has been around for over a decade (at least as far the internet is concerned, whose memory compares to that of a juvenile) and does not seem to have been used often. Google lists only a few hundred hits. But it has cropped up more frequently in the past weeks and attracted a bit of a following as part of the global media campaign against sugar.

The industries referred to nowadays under the term “addiction” are alcohol, tobacco, gambling and – yes, sugar. It would be easy to marginalise the anti-sugar campaigners as raving loonies. But that would mean to suicidally underestimate the crowd-pulling propensities of a battle-cry as punchy as “addiction industries”.

In the past, when the boo-boo consumer industries were made up of only three, albeit big ones – tobacco, alcohol and gambling – they were mostly and jocularly referred to as “sin stocks”. Investors who put their money into businesses engaged in these activities would have been considered naughty, a bit immoral perhaps, despite the tobacco companies’ wholly despicable fifty year record in denying the link between tobacco and disease.

However, as I see it, these investors would never have been called the enemies of the people. After all, consumers who lit up, had several drinks or played the weekly lotto were adults and – so the liberal argument ran – knew what they were doing. In other words, consumers had to be aware of the risks involved when indulging in their petty escapist distractions. No major responsibilities laid with the industries which peddled them.

Not least because Big Tobacco’s response to the findings of health advocates proved to be an unmitigated PR disaster, the alcohol industry was always right to insist that alcohol is not like tobacco. While tobacco smoking may ultimately kill half of its regular consumers, the alcohol industry could point out that alcohol can be used in ways that don’t harm drinkers. Indeed, in low doses, the alcohol industry argued, it may even be good for us. There were big cheers all around when scientific evidence showed that a large number of those who drink alcohol in moderation will live longer than teetotallers.

The term “addiction industries” could change all that. And all because of sugar. There are three aspects to bear in mind: While booze and fags today may appeal to only the hardy and consciously self-abusing consumers, sugar is an issue that concerns all of us. There is no way to avoid added sugars in our daily diet if we eat processed foods. Sugar is almost ubiquitous. Moreover, sugary foods are marketed at children. Here the standard liberal argument does not cut because children often have no choice as to what they eat or drink. Actually, neither have their parents.

Secondly, the sugar industry’s iffy tactics so far in preventing government regulation are strikingly similar to tobacco’s: from straightforward denial, to suspect scientific evidence to finally changing track in offering a continuous dialogue with its critics.

Thirdly, and most importantly, with the media soundly rallying behind the anti-sugar campaigners, it might not take long before the term “addiction industries” will dominate public discourse. If the media are good at one thing it’s finding a new hobbyhorse to flog. And why should they flog just one if they can give all the others a good whipping too? The more there are the more threatening the scenario.

What’s more, in this case the media’s reason for supporting the anti-sugar drive may not be cynical commercialism but genuine concern. This could make their campaign all the more effective and difficult to derail.

As with all media crusades, it will witness several ups and downs and may drag on for years. Besides, it could turn vicious and impossible to contain just to sugar, especially if the other “addiction industries” are convicted of employing some shady manoeuvres themselves in their efforts to fend off regulation. That’s why all of the “addiction industries” had better prepare to duck the bullets.

An afterthought: Even without making an explicit link to sugar, the anti-alcohol drive seems already to be intensifying in many places. In Australia, for example, it may be just the time of the year for it, but the application in early March of new lock-out and similar regulations in Sydney has been a major focus for the media, with mixed reports so far. Similar restrictions now in force for some weeks in Adelaide are having the desired effect - reducing binge drinking and 'alcohol-related violence' - according to police statements. This has been achieved with the loss of some jobs in the entertainment precincts as night spots are forced to close earlier etc.

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