A trader smokes an electronic cigarette outside of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York, U.S. (Photographer: John Taggart/Bloomberg)  

How Sugar Helped Hook America on Cigarettes

(Bloomberg) -- The damage and death that cigarettes cause are well known. “We produce a product that causes disease,” Andre Calantzopoulos, the chief executive of Philip Morris International Inc., told the BBC last month in announcing an alternative cigarette the company says should be less harmful.

As the popularity of smoking has plummeted in the U.S., health advocates have turned to another adversary, which they say has taken tobacco's place: the food industry. Comparisons between the two show up with regularity, especially when it comes to marketing to children. The same arguments public health experts aimed at Joe Camel are now being wielded against food companies that use cartoons, video games, and other targeted marketing to reach the same demographic of loyal customers-to-be. 

But the connection between junk food and cigarettes runs a lot deeper, as Gary Taubes details in a revelatory chapter of his book The Case Against Sugar, set to be released on Dec. 27.

Taubes—the author of Good Calories, Bad Calories and Why We Get Fat, and the recipient of three Science in Society Journalism awards from the National Association of Science Writers and a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Investigator Award in Health Policy Research—argues that sugar is the main driver of the chronic diseases plaguing Western civilization in the 21st century, including (but not limited to) diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.

If this were a criminal case,” he writes in the author’s note, The Case Against Sugar would be the argument for the prosecution.” That argument is convincing, if sometimes long-winded.

But wedged between chapters on the long history of humans’ insatiable lust for sugar (fun fact: New Guinean creation myths from 10,000 years ago involve “the sexual congress of the first man and a stalk of sugarcane”) and the economic resilience of sweets is a little-known story: the alliance between the sugar and tobacco industries. 

Tobacco itself has a natural sugar content, which curing alters. While flue-curing increases the sugar content, making the tobacco more palatable for smokers, it also results in lower content of nicotine, an addictive stimulant. By early in the 20th century, the industry had found a way to make its product both more enjoyable to smoke and higher in nicotine. Air-curing Burley tobacco creates relatively high levels of easily absorbed nicotine; sugar-soaking, which follows, enhances flavor.

Soon, “sugar-sauced” Burley tobacco was being blended into R.J. Reynolds’s Camels, and other manufacturers followed suit, Taubes writes. By 1929, more than 50 million pounds of sugar a year were being used to “candy up” the tobacco in more than 120 billion American cigarettes. 

“It is well recognized that sugar and other sweeteners have the ability to mask bitter and other undesirable flavors,” Courtney Gaine, president of the Sugar Association, which represents the industry, said in an e-mail. “While we have not read Mr. Taubes’ book,” she added, “the 60+ year old report referenced does not reflect The Sugar Association current activities or science priorities.” 

TMA, which represents the tobacco industry, said it didn’t have expertise in the area.

For this chapter, Taubes relies largely on Tobacco and Sugar, a 1950 report by the Sugar Research Foundation, the industry trade group at the time, that openly celebrated the union.

“Were it not for sugar,” said Wightman Garner, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture tobacco official quoted in the report, “the American blended cigarette and with it the tobacco industry of the United States would not have achieved such tremendous development as it did in the first half of this century.” Later in the report, the author refers to the development as “this most promising field of sugar utilization.” The combination, the report says, was a “stroke of genius.” 

Recent industry-funded research has found that the added sugar doesn't increase the toxicity of the cigarettes, but other studies confirm that it does make cigarettes taste better, getting people to smoke more of them. 

Even though sugar remains a component of modern-day cigarettes, few people realize it. “It’s virtually unknown,” Taubes said in an interview, noting that the topic was discussed in Sugar Blues, an anti-sugar classic from 1975, and Golden Holocaust, which railed against cigarettes in 2012. Taubes considered omitting it from his book, because it wasn’t central to his case about sugar in the diet. 

Ultimately, he figured, “How can I not tell this story in this book?”

Watch Next: Confused About What to Eat? You're Not Alone. 

How Sugar Helped Hook America on Cigarettes
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To contact the author of this story: Deena Shanker in New York at dshanker@bloomberg.net.