Sugar Killed More People Than Cigarettes?
Excessive consumption of added sugar would kill more people than tobacco. These words by author and science journalist Gary Taubes and endocrinologist Robert Lustig of the University of California have generated a lot of talk over the past decade.
What is it? The Rumor Detector has looked into the matter. The harms of tobacco have been the subject of hundreds of thousands of studies and are widely established. Smoking is a significant risk factor for 21 diseases, including lung cancer, respiratory ailments and cardiovascular disease. On average, a smoker’s life expectancy is reduced by ten years.
The harms of tobacco
According to the WHO, tobacco kills at least 8 million people each year, including about 1.2 million non-smokers unintentionally exposed to the smoke given off by cigarettes, water pipes (also called bang or bong) or other tobacco products.
According to the Conference Board’s most recent 10-year report in Canada alone, in 2012, tobacco use caused 45,464 deaths or nearly 1 in 5 deaths. That meant about 125 deaths per day. It was more than the sum of fatalities resulting from traffic accidents, other causes of unintentional injuries and assault. This was an increase from 37,209 tobacco-related deaths ten years earlier in 2002. Cancers, cardiovascular disease and respiratory disease, are the leading causes of smoking-related deaths.
In Quebec, smoking kills 35 people per day and nearly 13,000 per year, according to the Quebec Council on Tobacco and Health.
In short, smoking kills. But junk food, with or without sugar, kills even more.
The harm of junk food
One in five deaths globally, or 11 million, was linked to a low diet in 2017. It has been done according to a study in 195 countries and published in The Lancet. Almost all of these deaths were caused by cardiovascular disease (9 million), and the remainder by cancer (just over 900,000 deaths) and type 2 diabetes (only over 300,000), in the question: excess salt, sugar or meat, and insufficient intake of whole grains and fruits.
However, the authors recognize that the link between diet and death cannot be established with as much certainty as it is with other risk factors, such as tobacco. And it’s even more challenging to determine the impact of sugar alone. We cannot compare a group of people consuming sugar with a control group that would not be exposed to sugar, since everyone drinks it.
However, the association between sugar consumption and increased risk of death is well documented in the scientific literature. Several studies have shown that excessive consumption of added sugars (sucrose, high fructose corn syrup) is associated with a risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
What about sugar?
A review of the literature published in The Lancet in 2006 concluded that excess glucose in the blood kills 3.16 million per year worldwide, including 960,000 directly from diabetes and 2.2 million from disorders.
Sugary drinks (soft drinks, sports and energy drinks, fruit cocktails), which provide nearly half of the added sugars consumed by the population, are considered the main culprits of these harmful effects of sugar health. Drinking two servings of sugary drinks every day is associated with a 35% increase in coronary heart disease risk. Besides, when added sugar represents 25% of daily calories, the risk of heart disease is multiplied by three.
According to a study conducted by Tufts University, Boston, the consumption of these drinks would cause nearly 184,000 deaths each year around the world, published in 2015. It reads that for the year 2010, this consumption was reflected as per 133,000 deaths—the deaths from diabetes, 45,000 due to cardiovascular disease and 6,450 from cancer.
Because of these adverse health impacts, the WHO recommends that added sugars do not exceed 10% of our daily energy intake, i.e. around 50 g or 12 teaspoons of sugar for an average adult, or the equivalent of a single can of soft drink.
Neither sugar nor tobacco is advisable. But although consuming large amounts of added sugar inevitably increases the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, studies still tend to conclude that sugar kills two and a half times less than tobacco, or 3.16 million against 8 million.