Photo by Phillip Stewart

Much has been made in recent years about the beverage and food industries borrowing from the tobacco industry’s playbook as they fend off increasing scrutiny about their role in preventable chronic health problems, like type II diabetes and heart disease.

A case study published last week in the journal PLOS Medicine revealed a surprising early relationship between the two (rightly) beleaguered industries.

Dr. Cristin Kearns from the UCSF School of Dentistry, and her co-authors, examined sugar industry documents from 1959 to 1971 that detailed the industry’s efforts to deflect attention away from the relationship between sugar consumption and dental caries (at the time the leading chronic disease among children). If you’re at all familiar with the current debate about industry’s responsibility for population health, then this case study may evoke a sense of deja vu.

The documents uncover sugar industry acknowledgement, very early on, of the role that sugar plays in dental caries. Similar to what we’ve seen from since-released tobacco industry documents, industry representatives from the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF) took it upon themselves to explore and support any effort to reduce the harm from sugar consumption in any way other than actually reducing sugar consumption.

From SRF’s 1950 annual report:

“The ultimate aim of the Foundation in dental research has been to discover effective means of controlling tooth decay by methods other than restricting carbohydrate intake.”

The report goes on to concede carbohydrates’ known role in tooth decay, but urges the exploration of options to mitigate this harm without reducing intake. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with an industry researching ways to make its products less dangerous--that should be encouraged--but it’s all the other stuff they did that warrants consideration:

The industry poured money into research for things like pharmaceuticals and even anti-tooth decay vaccines, even when it became clear these would not be very effective interventions compared to reducing sugar intake.

The National Institute of Dental Research (NIDR) initially recommended, among other dietary interventions, research into the cariogenic (caries-causing) potential of certain foods. This would help inform consumers about which foods would be more likely to cause tooth decay. Of the nine members of the 1969 NIDR Caries Task Force Steering Committee, eight were also on the sugar industry-funded International Sugar Research Foundation (ISRF). The ISRF reviewed the NIDR findings, and then submitted its own recommendations back to the NIDR. Ultimately, the recommendation to study the cariogenic potential of foods was left out of the NIDR’s request for research contracts.

Source: Wikimedia Creative Commons

The sugar industry interference seems to have been successful, at least for a time. Even though they had initially determined that understanding the cariogenic potential of foods was important, it wasn’t until eight years later that the NIDR finally started studying this in animals. The delay had an effect. In addition to intense industry lobbying, the lack of research was also cited as a factor in the defeat of several public health measures, like removing sugary foods from schools, and banning their advertising toward children.

The threat of dental caries was an early public health battle, preceding even the efforts to curb smoking-related deaths and morbidity. Early enough, in fact, that the tobacco industry apparently decided to prepare for its own coming clash with public health by hiring one of the sugar industry's top scientists--someone well prepared to field concerns about tobacco's safety. According to Kearns, et. al:

“The sugar industry formed SRF in 1943 to fund research that supported the industry position, 11 years before the creation of the Tobacco Industry Research Committee (TIRC) in 1954 to play a similar role for the tobacco industry. In 1954, the TIRC hired SRF’s first scientific director, Robert Hockett, to serve as the TIRC’s associate scientific director, where he was positioned to help the tobacco industry learn key science manipulation tactics from the sugar industry.”

Today, we hear claim after claim from food and beverage companies that the rest of the research community just doesn’t understand what their scientists have figured out: obesity and its associated health problems are caused by inactivity, not by a poor diet; that advertising unhealthy food to children is in no way responsible for children’s poor health; and that interventions aimed at decreasing consumption of unhealthy foods and drinks simply will not work. These claims misinterpret, distort, or selectively draw from the public health literature.

The only difference between the blatant rejection of the science by today’s food industry, and that of yesterday’s tobacco and sugar industries, is that we have documented proof that the tobacco and sugar industries fully understood how their products were contributing to health problems and even deaths.

But we don’t need internal memos to see that this tactical obfuscation of the science is coming from the same playbook. It's been well documented that these industries are using the same misleading strategies. It is surprising, however, to learn that Big Sugar got that playbook started in the first place. Will we have to wait another fifty years to find documented proof of the deliberate nature of the food industry's present misinformation campaign?