Sugar and fat are just as addictive as tobacco

Unhealthy foods should be taxed punitively and the money raised spent on treating the problems
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The Independent Online

Poor old George Best, doomed to live his life (however much more of it there might be) as some sort of morality tale, a modern version of a Greek myth. The great genius with the fatal flaw finds himself once again the focus of frenzied speculation.

Some of it is focused on whether or not he "deserved" the liver transplant that saved his life. Some of it puzzles as to why those Antabuse pellets implanted in his stomach haven't been working. Much of it dwells on how he has let down his lovely wife, and all the people who care about him most.

Not that much of it, though, displays straightforward contempt that a man, who knows that drink will kill him, can't stop drinking. We're all so well-drilled now, or think we are, in the concept of addiction, that it is easy to assume that Mr Best's addiction is simply so huge that he cannot be held responsible for his inability to curb it.

Certainly that is the attitude that Mrs Best appears to be taking. Her anger is reserved for those who have been supplying him with alcohol, as if the whole world ought to be under some obligation to rally round her husband, protecting him, coddling him and keeping him from harm.

The chap responsible for serving up white wine spritzers to the manchild is not challenging this assertion, either. Instead, he is pleading ignorance. He didn't recognise Mr Best, a spokesman for the brewery has said, because he is from New Zealand.

The spokesman could have added that since Britain's pubs are full of flabby, jowly, grey-haired alcoholics being served on demand as long as they can stand, it's hard for a barman to know exactly if he should start drawing the line a little earlier, anyway.

But he didn't. Instead he suggested that there was no "safer" place than a pub in which to drink alcohol. "We are selling alcohol and allowing people to drink it in a controlled environment. He is much more likely to behave himself and drink low amounts here than if he was at home or on a park bench." Sound advice, indeed - if you do have a problem with alcohol, head for the pub.

An absurd claim, of course. But what is the brewery, caught red-handed hastening a British icon to his grave, supposed to say? Strictly speaking, no industries that make their profits by selling goods that they know can cause harm to people can ever find a patch of unassailably moral high ground when making their justifications.

All that saves the drinks industry from the sort of litigation that has had such success in challenging the tobacco industry; absolutely everyone knows that immoderate drinking is bad for you. This knowledge, though, is no guarantee of sensible behaviour. No alcoholic could possibly win an action against a liquor manufactureror retailer, and that is exactly as it should be.

This is the reason why we find it so ridiculous that obese Americans are beginning to bring litigation against McDonald's and other companies in the fast-food business. It is widely known that consuming high-fat, high-sugar food is bad for you, so complaining that it has ruined your health seems, so to speak, to be a case of eating your cake and having it.

But now a new element has emerged in the equation, which worries the big food companies. A discovery, by scientists at Rockefeller University, in New York, echoes earlier research at Princeton University; it has been found that the biochemical changes caused by ingesting large quantities of fat and sugar are comparable to the addictive reactions caused by drugs such as heroin or cocaine.

Now potential litigants - and in a world that can now boast more overweight people than underweight people, there seem to be plenty of those - can argue that because of the addictive nature of the food that they were sold, their free choice was removed from them without their knowledge.

If this seems similar to the arguments surrounding the US tobacco litigation of the 1990s, then that's because it is. In fact, the two sets of litigation are being spearheaded by the same man, Professor John Banzhaf, of George Washington University, who had a key role in the previous actions.

And even though Banzhaf and other like-minded lawyers still have not won a case, the food industry is running scared. Yet the attack on fast-food companies is likely to achieve no more than a limited victory that ensures that people will be warned on packaging and at outlets that what they are buying is highly detrimental to their health, well-being and life expectancy. Hopefully, too, it will lead to the curbing of the marketing and sale of unhealthy food directly to children.

But some people -- fewer but still many - will continue knowingly to buy unhealthy food, as they do alcohol and tobacco, and this will still have an impact on their health.

There have also been suggestions, on both sides of the Atlantic, that high-sugar, high-fat food should be punitively taxed, just as alcohol and tobacco are. This is not likely to happen, since critics believe it will be a tax on the poor, who are most likely to eat this kind of bad diet.

I don't think it is such a bad idea though, as long as there is one proviso. We constantly hear now about how the NHS spends a vast slice of its budget on smoking-, alcohol- and obesity-related illness. There have even been suggestions that people who do not undertake to stop smoking, lose weight or stop drinking should be refused treatment.

It seems to me that, instead, these items should be taxed punitively, and that the extra tax raised on the sale of these items should be spent directly on treating the problems they cause. By this I mean not only that the smoker, after 40 years, should expect to have his legs amputated on the NHS, or that the drinker should get his liver transplant. He should, because after all he's paid for it.

But he should also have access, at a much earlier stage, to programmes that have been successful in treating the root problem, addiction. In the case of obesity especially, such an investment might pay dividends pretty quickly.

Nutritionists may still pooh-pooh the Atkins diet, for example. But despite all the gimmickry around the diet, what it does do is to isolate fat intake from sugar intake - the combination that we now know is addictive - and to treat sugar as an addictive substance that those with a propensity for obesity must accept that they simply cannot touch.

All addiction treatment is essentially about getting the addict to realise that curbing addiction is not about having willpower, but understanding instead that they don't have the willpower to stop again once they've started.

It's a complex, elaborate psychological process, getting a person truly to realise this, and in Britain and the US these sort of programmes are not anything like widely enough available. You can't litigate to make the addict safe from temptation, you can't apply medical solutions - like Antabuse - to problems that are psychological more than physical, and you can't change the world to suit the addict.

Mrs Best might wish to do so, but by failing to face the fact that only her husband can change his future, she's failing to make one change that's truly necessary. Mr Banzhaf, with his litigious approach, will have more success in the short term. But only because he will force people to understand what they're putting in their mouths and why. Beyond that, it's up to them.