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Sweet Tax? Is Sugar as Dangerous as Alcohol and Tobacco?

iStockPhoto/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- Is sugar as dangerous as cigarettes and booze?

One group of researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, says so. And they are urging a tax on sugary treats and some action by the government to get Americans to cut back on sugar.

In an editorial published Wednesday in the journal Nature, the UCSF doctors, Robert Lustig, Laura Schmidt and Claire Brindis, said the ballooning rates -- and costs --  of obesity, diabetes, and other diseases, mean it’s time for regulators to lump sugar into the same category as booze and cigarettes and put similar restrictions on its sale and availability.

They write that the healthcare community needs to find a better way to get the message out about sugar’s corrosive effects, “So far, evidence shows that individually focused approaches, such as school-based interventions that teach children about diet and exercise, demonstrate little efficacy.”

The authors say the government should consider taxing any processed foods that have added sugar, including soda, juice, chocolate milk and sugared cereal.

Other efforts, they say, should aim to make sugary foods and drinks hard to get, like imposing age limits for buying soda and controlling when and where sugary foods are sold. They also envision something like a sugar-free zone around schools.

The bans shouldn’t be on consumers only, the authors argue. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration should consider removing sugar from its Generally Regarded as Safe list, a designation that allows companies to add as much of an ingredient or nutrient as they want to processed foods.

The authors point to the success of similar “supply-side” restrictions on alcohol and tobacco in preventing some of the health harms from those substances.

Wider control of sugar is already being considered by a number of policymakers across the country. U.S. health and government officials have been debating a penny-per-ounce tax on soda. Other attempts to limit the inclusion of soda and sugary foods from federal food stamp programs or control the availability of soda and chocolate milk in schools have caused uproar across the country.

But support for those measures -- even from the health community -- have been mixed. In 2011, the American Medical Association declined to give support to a national sugar-sweetened beverage tax, saying it needed more information on the topic before weighing in.

Some nutrition experts note that sugar is not the only culprit in the skyrocketing rates of obesity, diabetes and other diseases that consume billions of dollars health care costs each year. Others note that the sources of these chronic diseases are more complex than just the foods we eat.

Experts agree that the current approaches to addressing chronic diseases aren’t working very well. But they say the solutions will need to go beyond regulating one aspect of the food supply.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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