(CBS) Should the government regulate sugar, just like it regulates alcohol and tobacco?
A new commentary published online in the Feb. 1 issue of Nature says sugar is just as "toxic" for people as the other two, so the government should step in to curb its consumption.
The United Nations announced in September that chronic diseases like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes contribute to 35 million deaths worldwide each year, according to the commentary. The U.N. pegged tobacco, alcohol, and diet as big risk factors that contributed to this death rate.
Two of those are regulated by governments, "leaving one of the primary culprits behind this worldwide health crisis unchecked," the authors, Robert H. Lustig, Laura A. Schmidt and Claire D. Brindis, argued.
They said that over the past 50 years, sugar consumption has tripled worldwide. That's also helped contribute to the obesity epidemic - so much so that there are 30 percent more obese people in this world than there are malnourished people.
But how does sugar compare to alcohol?
Sugar meets the same criteria for regulation as alcohol, the authors wrote, because it's unavoidable, there's potential for abuse, it's toxic, and it negatively impacts society. They write that sugar is added to so many processed foods that it's everywhere, and people eat up to 500 calories per day in added sugar alone. Sugar acts on the same areas of the brain as alcohol and tobacco to encourage subsequent intake, they wrote, and it's toxic because research shows that sugar increases disease risk from factors other than added calories, such as when it disrupts metabolism.
"Many people think that obesity is the root cause of these diseases," they wrote. But 40 percent of normal-weight people are developing diseases like diabetes, hypertension, lipid problems, heart and liver disease. "Obesity is not the cause; rather, it is a marker."
That's why it's time that the government steps in and regulates sugar in ways similar to tobacco and alcohol, the authors wrote. That includes taxes, age restrictions and other policies to control the distribution of sugar.
"We are now seeing the toxic downside," co-author and sugar researcher Lustig, a professor of clinical pediatrics at the UCSF Center for Obesity Assessment, Study, and Treatment, told WebMD. "There has to be some sort of societal intervention. We cannot do it on our own because sugar is addictive. Personal intervention is necessary, but not sufficient."
Dr. Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, told HealthPop that she agrees that it's time for policy changes, since many Americans take in roughly 25 percent of their daily calorie intake through sugar.
"I don't think people have any idea how many calories they take in when they take in soft drinks - particularly because they are consumed in such large quantities," Nestle said. She thinks regulation could eventually be possible, since many local governments are already enacting policies to curb sugar in schools or tax sodas.
"If you have enough of those, the federal government can step in."
Industry groups disagreed with the science and implications of the commentary.
The Sugar Association said it disputes some of the statistics presented - namely the tripled sugar consumption rates, which it said were based on "incomplete science" in a statement emailed to HealthPop.
"We are confident that the American people are perfectly capable of choosing what foods to eat without stark regulations and unreasonable bans imposed upon them," read a prepared statement from the Sugar Association.
The American Beverage Association added in a separate statement, "Moreover, an isolated focus on a single ingredient such as sugar or fructose to address health issues noted by the World Health Organization to be caused by multiple factors, including tobacco use, harmful alcohol use, an unhealthy diet and lack of physical activity, is an oversimplification"