UCSF researchers uncover tainted decades-old studies on tooth decay

Researchers at UC San Francisco recently exposed a conflict of interest between the private sector and federal government on the effect of sugar on teeth.

The researchers found documents from the 1960s and '70s that showed a coordinated effort to cover up findings showing how reduced sugar consumption would prevent tooth decay.

The study, published Tuesday in the open-source scientific journal PLOS Medicine, used trade documents to reveal that the sugar industry worked closely with the federally funded National Institutes of Health to develop alternative approaches to focus on reducing sugar consumption, including researching a vaccine to prevent tooth decay.

An archive of 319 industry documents, uncovered in a public collection at the University of Illinois, showed a sugar-industry trade organization with 30 international members acknowledged as early as 1950 that sugar causes tooth decay.

But the organization subsequently adopted a strategy that identified different approaches to reducing tooth decay, according to the study, which was led by Dr. Cristin Kearns, a UCSF postdoctoral scholar who discovered the archives. Then, in 1969, the NIH decided that focusing on reducing sugar consumption was not a practical public health measure.

The trade organization and the NIH thus aligned their priorities to develop alternative research approaches. Seventy-eight percent of the trade organization's research priorities were then incorporated into a 1971 request for research proposals from scientists.

“What we found was that in this era … there were not strong safeguards on scientific conflicts of interest,” said Laura Schmidt, a co-author of the UCSF study and principal investigator on the UCSF-led SugarScience initiative.

The collaboration essentially steered the direction of science for over a decade, she said.

“Somehow the [sugar] industry was able to influence [the] government,” Schmidt said.

The study came out the same day that three city supervisors introduced several pieces of legislation that would require health warnings on soda-related advertising in San Francisco, ban such ads on publicly funded property and prevent city funds from being spent on sugary beverages.

A tax on the sale of sugary beverages in The City was defeated in November's election after failing to garner two-thirds approval, although it did gain some 56 percent of votes.

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