“Sugar is the new tobacco!” Now that’s a sound bite that will get your blood running. It’s one of a slew of screaming headlines that quickly caught my attention during that first full work week in January. Of course, it was meant to be an attention-grabber; after all, a headline such as “Health experts stress sensible sugar consumption in daily diet” just doesn’t cut it, does it?

But first, let me explain where this most recent attack on sugar comes from, the UK. Yes, the same place that’s home to Downton Abby as well as Cadbury Dairy Milk, Basset’s Allsorts Licorice and Tunnock’s Teacakes.

Bernie Pacyniak

Seems that a group there known as CASH (Consensus Action on Salt and Health), which was formed in 1996, has established an offshoot organization, Action on Sugar (AOS).

As the website explains “Action on Sugar is a group of specialists concerned with sugar and its effects on health. It is successfully working to reach a consensus with the food industry and Government over the harmful effects of a high-sugar diet, and bring about a reduction in the amount of sugar in processed foods. Action on Sugar is supported by 18 expert advisors. “

The group claims that government attempts to reduce sugar — and here they are specifically referring to the British government — have failed and that a new approach is needed.

Graham McGregor, professor of cardiovascular medicine at the Wolfson Institute of Preventative Medicine and chairman of Action on Sugar, says that a 20 to 30 percent decrease in sugar content during the next three to five years could nip the obesity epidemic in its tracks.

As quoted in The Independent, MacGregor pronounced the call to action as a “simple plan which gives a level playing field to the food industry, and must be adopted by the Department of Health to reduce the completely unnecessary and very large amounts of sugar the food and soft drink industry is currently adding to our foods.”

MacGregor’s colleague, Sinmon Capewell, professor of clinical epidemiology at the University of Liverpool, went one better. InThe Independent, he’s quoted as saying that “Sugar is the new tobacco. Everywhere, sugary drinks and junk foods are now pressed on unsuspecting parents and children by a cynical industry focused on profit not health.”

AOS provides several examples, citing foods and beverages ranging from a Starbucks caramel frappuccino to Sharwood’s Sweet & Sour Chicken with Rice, as having 11 and six tablespoons of sugar, respectively. Even a can of Heinz Classic Cream of Tomato soup has four tablespoons.

Of course, there were three confectionery treats listed as well: A 51-gram Mars bar had eight tablespoons of sugar whileButterkist Toffee Popcorn had four and Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain Crunch Oat Granola Cinnamon Bar had two tablespoons. 

AOS emphasized that obesity and diabetes is already costing the UK £5 billion annually and that it will rise to £50 billion in 2050. Cut sugar consumption down and — kazam! — problem resolved. Naturally, AOS cites it parent group’s success in reducing salt consumption, emphasizing that salt intake dropped by 15 percent between 2001 and 2011, reducing deaths by stroke and/or heart attack by at least 6,000.

So what implications does AOS’ campaign have for confectioners, who obviously are all about providing people with sweet treats. First, it’s important to keep reinforcing the notion that chocolate and candy are not foods, they are treats.

Second, it’s also important to note that sugar consumption is not directly tied to triggering diabetes. As the American Diabetes Association states on its website, “Type 1 diabetes is caused by genetics and unknown factors that trigger the onset of the disease; type 2 diabetes is caused by genetics and lifestyle factors”. The ADA does go on to say that sugary drinks have been linked to type 2 diabetes.

As for obesity, well, it’s been pretty well-documented these days that diet is not the only factor involved in being overweight. Stress, exercise (or the lack of it) and one’s workplace and home environment play a role.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for intelligent, science-based discussion about processed foods and the high levels of sugar in them. It should not, however, translate into a demonizing campaign against sugar. It does have its place in our diet. As do confections.

So when someone with credentials comes out and says that “Sugar is the next tobacco,” my anxiety level starts to go up. Using demagogue-like tactics to score points with the media demeans the value of the message, which has its merits.

 Moreover, I believe this campaign will gain traction. In doing so, it will spawn a flurry of media questions. But it’s no time to panic; simply time to prepare.