Regulate, tax sugar like alcohol, tobacco?

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It's the sweet spot in our diet -- sugar.

Some of us -- like Valerie Ramirez -- can't go a day without it. She says she's "definitely" addicted to it.

But sugar may be more than simply empty calories

In the latest issue of the journal "Nature," Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California, brands sugar a "toxin" -- deadly enough in high enough doses that, he says, it should be regulated just like alcohol. "Look," he tells CBS News. "Sugar is pleasure, sugar is energy, sugar is natural. Well guess what? So is alcohol, and a little is OK, but too much is a bad thing."

The Department of Agriculture recommends a sugar intake of the equivalent of about a can of soda a day. But Lustig says Americans now consume nearly three times that much, on average.

And it's not just added sweeteners such as high fructose corn syrup found in soft drinks -- but all sugars, he says -- even in flavored water -- that are to blame for diseases like high blood pressure and heart disease -- traditionally blamed on fat. Says Lustig, "It was never the fat. It's not the fat. It's the sugar."

It's a controversial statement -- and Lustig certainly has his critics -- not the least of whom are the sugar and beverage industries which, in lengthy statements, criticized Lustig's findings.

The Sugar Association called them "irresponsible," accusing him of "instilling fear" in consumers. The American Beverage Association said Lustig's conclusions are "without scientific merit."

But Lustig is so convinced, he's saying if sugar isn't regulated, it should at the very least be taxed, like tobacco. "No one's ready for $2 dollar can of Coke," he observes. "On the other hand, they weren't ready for an $11.90 pack of cigarettes in New York City, either."

He points to teens like Rochelle Birch -- rushed to the hospital last year after a seizure.

"I was ignoring, basically, what my body was telling me," she says.

She weighed 250 pounds at just 16 - and Lustig told her in no uncertain terms her sugar intake was to blame. "You want that soda?" she recalls Lustig saying. "You're just basically killing yourself."

Birch has lost 75 pounds by reducing sugar in her diet, something most health experts agree is key.

Where most depart from Lustig's claims is to blame sugar, and sugar alone, for a range of diseases they say are far more complicated than that.

To see Lee Cowan's report, click on the video in the player above.