What prisons, sugar and health care costs have in common (besides some cool infographics)

We know that people use many different substances and activities to cope with the toxic stress produced by suffering adverse childhood experiences. Those substances and activities include, but are not limited to, methamphetamine (which was once prescribed as a legal antidepressant in the U.S.), alcohol, tobacco, food (especially fats and sugars), sex, thrill sports, exercise and even working too much.

By preventing childhood trauma and by changing our systems — such as education and health — to avoid traumatizing already traumatized people, we’d save billions of dollars. Billions. Never mind the increase in the number of healthier, happier people in the world.

Take prisons. Face the Facts USA, a nonpartisan information resource from the Center for Innovation at The George Washington University, a did a slide show called “U.S. is the World’s Imprisonment Capital“. Some pertinent facts:

It costs about $60 billion a year to keep state and federal prisoners behind bars. States shoulder the biggest share, 85 percent or $51 billion. Federal prison costs are 15 percent or close to $9 billion.

Among federal inmates in 2010: about half (51 percent) were serving time for drug offenses, 35 percent for violations of “public order” offenses like weapons charges or immigration law violations, and less than 10 percent each for violent and property offenses.

So what if legal drugs — substances to which people can become addicted — became illegal? Say, sugar.

Here are a few screengrabs from a fascinating infographic (check out  Visual.ly to see the whole thing).

If you’re a woman, a healthy amount of refined sugar (that’s the sugar added to foods, not the natural  sugar in fruits or veggies) is 6 teaspoons each day (there are 4-8 grams of sugar per teaspoon, depending on the granularity of the sugar). For men, it’s 9 teaspoons. The average intake for each person in the U.S. is 22 teaspoons per day.

In 1900, each person in the U.S. ate about 5 pounds of sugar a year. Today, it’s 150 pounds. And 61 pounds comes from high fructose corn syrup — the sweetener added to almost everything.

Yep, sugar can be addictive.

But I’d add a qualifier: Sugar is addictive to those who can become addicted to it. It’s not addictive in itself. (Nothing is — it’s a myth that one exposure to heroin, meth, cocaine, etc. can cause someone to be addicted.) Otherwise the whole world’s population would be addicted. As a friend who suffered sexual abuse as a child said, in explaining why she was so skinny when some of her friends who’d been sexually abused were obese: “Some people choose food. My drug of choice was alcohol.”

If sugar were declared an illegal substance tomorrow, can you imagine how many more people would be imprisoned?

Some drugs have prison costs and health costs. Some drugs just have health costs. Sugar’s health costs include:

When Washington State analyzed its ACE survey (ACEs in Washington 2009 BRFSS Final Report), it determined that about a quarter of the state’s heart disease, a quarter of cancer and most cases of depression were due to childhood trauma. There probably isn’t an adult in the U.S. who isn’t aware of health care costs, but a few reminders, also from Face the Facts USA:

  • Medicare prescription drug spending shot up from $46 billion to $56 billion in four years (2006-2010), a 22% hike.
  • Household income dropped 6.4 percent in the last 10 years, but health costs for each child, woman and man in the U.S. increased 36%.
  • From 2000 to 2010, the average cost of a hospital stay nearly doubled — from $17,390 to $33,079. Let’s see…if you were in the same job during that time, did your salary double? Mmm. Didn’t think so.


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