WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) -- Sugar industry documents secretly obtained by researchers could fuel a wave of litigation similar to those experienced by the tobacco industry.
The same researchers responsible for obtaining secret tobacco industry documents are currently focusing on the sugar industry, giving food and beverage companies reason to remain on high alert.
Stanton Glantz, a key researcher behind the secret tobacco industry documents that fueled litigation in the 1990s, recently obtained Sugar Research Foundation documents that allegedly include communication among sugar industry executives.
Glantz also alleged the Sugar Research Foundation was behind funding for research in the 1960s that pointed the finger away from sugar and instead at fat as a key contributor for a range of heart diseases.
It’s not entirely clear where or how such sugar industry documents were obtained by researchers. However, it is clear what those who have obtained the documents hope to discover.
Liz Blackwell, a St. Louis attorney familiar with the tobacco and sugar papers, says researchers combing over secret sugar documents are seeking material that would prove the sugar industry attempted to suppress evidence that would be harmful to its interests.
“In terms of what the claims would be or what would be the goal, the allegation that the companies manipulated research agendas and marketed a product or marketed in such a way that caused significant health effects can be used to support broad claims to recover medical costs,” Blackwell told Legal Newsline.
As was the case with tobacco, the argument at the crux of litigation isn’t necessarily whether sugar contributes to a range of health disorders but whether sugar triggers brain impulses that cause people to take sugar compulsively.
"I think there is a consumer awareness issue in both cases," Blackwell said.
"In the tobacco context, plaintiffs attorneys turned to allegations about addiction in order to respond to public awareness, to claim people started smoking when younger, then became addicted. I think that's why you’re starting to see in the sugar lawsuits this reference to brain effects and addiction-like properties.”
The question is whether those documents — and evidence in general — exists.
“I don't think there is evidence out there to support all the parallels researchers are trying to make,” Blackwell said. “Clearly, there's interest and some researchers are working on sugar as a public policy or public health issue."
In September, General Mills became the target of a lawsuit alleging the company’s cereals lacked labels regarding the potential harmful impacts of sugar. This comes at the same time the Center for Science in Public Interest (CPSI) took aim at the sugar industry, alleging companies are marketing products high-sugar products as healthy.
“Excessive amounts of sugar are harmful to people,” Maia Kats, litigation director of CPSI, told Bloomberg BNA. “I think that industry is aware of that harm, and to the extent that they are packaging the product as nutritious, with that knowledge, that is going to be an area for litigation exploration."