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The Killer Politics of Big Sugar

A recent report by the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development) underscores the health care crisis in the world’s most exceptional democracy. The U.S. spends two and a half times per capita more on health care than any other developed country. How does this happen? Take a look at a key player in the paradox: sugar growers. In Florida it is called, Big Sugar. In other states it is beets, maple syrup and most ubiquitous of all: high-fructose corn syrup extracted from an unlimited corn crop heavily subsidized by taxpayers.

“30%-40% of healthcare expenditures in the USA go to help address issues that are closely tied to the excess consumption of sugar.” (Credit Suisse Report: “Sugar: Consumption At A Crossroads”, Sept. 2013) In Forbes Magazine, contributor Dan Monroe summarized, “Basically, the U.S. healthcare system spends about $1 trillion per year (and possibly more) fighting the effects of excess sugar consumption.”

“Higher health spending per capita tends to be associated with lower mortality rates and higher life expectancy, but this is not the case for the United States.” (“OECD: Switzerland tops 34 nations for life expectancy at 82.8”, UPI, Jan. 7, 2014)  American politics are organized to protect corporate interests that make voters and taxpayers sick, and there is no better example: in a candy bar or a bowl of healthy granola, sugar is the big stake in the heart of American health.

According to a recent United Health Foundation study, “Nine of the 10 least healthy states in the nation had among the 10 worst obesity rates in the country.” The United Health Foundation  was established by UnitedHealth Group in 1999 as a not-for-profit, private foundation dedicated to improving health and health care. Its “America’s Health Rankings” rates the most healthy and least health states by evaluating factors such as healthy behaviors, quality of health care, health policy, the presence of diseases and deaths from illnesses.

The study is a good gateway to explore the politics of sugar. Nutrition advocates and environmentalists who have every reason to despair at the corrupting political influence of sugar have never connected the dots for the American public: sugar is not just another crop that receives federal benefits. It is a crop whose profits deform democracy and public health, no matter whose political party is in charge or at what level of government.

70 percent of governors in the study’s “most healthy states” are Democrat. In these states, Democrats are 80 percent of the number of senators. That is not, however, the end of the story.

The website 247 Wall Street parses the difference as an economic matter, divorced from politics:

Money (also) clearly plays a role in determining health. The healthiest states are often among the nation’s wealthiest, and each had a median household income well-above the national median. At the other end, nearly all of the nation’s least healthy states had among the lowest incomes. The three least healthy states — Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana — were also the nation’s three poorest by median income. Residents’ ability to pay for health care, as well as the ability to afford a good education, which can affect good health decisions, are possible reasons for this relationship.

(Behavior plays a major role in determining whether people stay healthy. In an interview with 24/7 Wall St.,) Dr. Reed Tuckson, external clinical advisor to United Health Foundation’s America’s Health Rankings, explained that the relationship between wealth and health could also be the result of lack of optimism poorer people may have. “When you do not have great hope for the future, when you’re living a life that is not as optimistic, people are generally not as inclined to take charge of their overall health. ‘What’s the point,’ people will say. ‘If my life is miserable anyway, why would I do something to make myself live longer?’

A clearer picture emerges through 2013 voting patterns when the US Senate took up an amendment to the Farm Bill to reduce sugar subsidies. By reducing its guarantees, Congress would have stripped the certainty through which the sugar industry spends on lobbyists and politicians. On May 22nd, the Senate rejected reforms proposed by Senator Jeanne Shaheen from NH, one of the most healthy states, 54-44.

Support for reform was mostly a Republican venture. Leading up to the vote, wealthy foundations and conservative think tanks like the Club for Growth, Americans for Prosperity, the Competitive Enterprise Institute and Americans for Tax Reform all weighed in. For the Club For Growth, Andrew Roth wrote: “The federal sugar program is a prime example of the federal government wrongly picking winners and losers in the private sector. It dislocates jobs, increases prices for consumers and businesses, and includes a protectionist quota that stifles freer trade.”

George Will, in the Washington Post, echoed: “Sugar protectionism is government planning. It is industrial policy — government picking winners and losers — applied to agriculture. It is politics supplanting the market in allocating wealth and opportunity. And it is perfectly all right with 20 of the 45 Republican senators.” Will lambasted Florida Senator Marco Rubio for ducking (voting against the reform) while Texas senator Ted Cruz, who also has sugar production in his state, stuck with his principles. Will failed to note Rubio’s political dependence on money from Big Sugar.

In the final tally, Democrats opposed sugar reform by 55 percent to 40 percent (NJ Senator Frank Lautenberg did not vote.). US senators from states identified as “healthy” but with sugar constituencies — Minnesota (D), Vermont (D, I), Colorado (D), North Dakota (D, R) and Hawaii (D) — all voted against reform.  The website, Opensecrets.org, points out that the second highest recipient of campaign cash from sugar interests was progressive champion, Al Franken (D-Minnesota). Franken in 2013 received $27,999. “Sugar is the only industry in the entire agribusiness sector that has consistently supported Democrats during the past two decades.” (Sugar Cane and Sugar Beets: Background, Opensecrets)

Of the states ranked least healthy states by the United Health Foundation and with sugar interests — Louisiana and Mississippi — all four senators, all Republican, voted against reform. In contrast, the Republican senators from Tennessee, Oklahoma, Kentucky and West Virginia who had no sugar constituencies voted their principles.

When sugar money is at stake, Democrats in Congress abandon their principles with the same vigor as Republicans. But there is actually a more nuanced point: the sugar industry plays politics to keep at every single level of government, while public health and other civic activists stay in separate silos, consumers are shuffled off into supermarkets where sugar-containing products are the cheapest and easiest to reach, and taxpayers simply bear the ever increasing costs of subsidizing sugar in American diets.

Whether by choice or financial necessity, one’s diet is personal and — in the thinking of most Americans — entirely separate from politics.

In the United States, the right wing calls the phenomenon, freedom of the market place even though the marketplace for foods supported by corporate welfare is 100 percent, entirely political.

The GOP ideal is that self-interested corporations and their shareholders and managers, guided through the forces of supply and demand unfettered by government regulation, is the best guarantor of the public interest — so the thinking goes. Yet sugar subsidies are among the most corrupting practices of corporate welfare in the United States, and they are supported by both political parties.

American citizens are free to choose their destinies, corporations are free to exercise their rights as people, and there is a statistical probability of dying earlier in the United States than in Slovenia or Chile.

How much does it cost sugar industries to persuade Congress to support its welfare program that inflicts a considerable portion of the $1 trillion health care costs cited above? Not much at all.

“In 2009, (sugar) crop producers spent more than $20.5 million on federal lobbying.” (“How Big Sugar Gets Its Way”, The Florida Independent, Sept. 11, 2011) That is the tip of the iceberg. Sugar producers and related industries cumulatively spend billions through dark money channels in political campaigns and “independent” expenditure committees supporting their candidates at all levels of government: from the smallest fry in Florida counties, to the state capitols wherever sugar can be grown. (“Koch-backed political coalition, designed to shield donors, raised $400 million in 2012”, Washington Post, 1/7/2014) Sugar money in American politics disappears through the figments of campaign finance law and filaments of law enforcement. The United States is that special snow flake fallen on a pile of white sugar, melted golden by corporations more powerful than people.

Living free from disease caused by excess consumption of sugar should not be a partisan issue.  Reforming the sugar subsidy in the farm bill and passing other measures inhibiting sugar consumption to protect the public health should not be a partisan issue, either. Democrats may follow the money trail — former president Bill Clinton has famously close ties to Florida’s sugar billionaires, the Fanjuls — but Republicans are in violation of their own principles by allowing the tsunami of sugar-related campaign cash; opposing campaign finance reform like stubborn cattle until some gun goes off. If Republicans are the party of business, it should only take the back of an envelope to do the calculation: want to live longer? reduce sugar’s influence on America’s bloated body politic.

The costs are in public health. Manufacturers of sugar products who oppose the corporate welfare program in the farm bill, complain about the loss of manufacturing jobs and about $1 billion in annual, excess profits that accrue to sugar growers, thanks to price supports and other guarantees. Don’t forget collateral damage. American taxpayers are paying tens of billions of dollars because Big Sugar in Florida will not clean up the pollution it causes on its own farmland in the historic Everglades. Despite generations of strong bipartisan support for Everglades restoration in Congress and the White House — Big Sugar holds Florida politics in a steel grip. The challengers — Florida’s Everglades advocates are segregated in silos instead of reaching out on the single point of contact with American voters: sugar makes people ill and shortens life expectancy at rates that invite amazement.

Name one Republican or Democratic member of Congress, name one local town selectman or one county commissioner who wants to die before their time because the well of life is poisoned by sugar.

Alan Farago is president of Friends of the Everglades and can be reached at afarago@bellsouth.net

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Alan Farago is president of Friends of the Everglades and can be reached at afarago@bellsouth.net

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