By Sahar Saifee –
An increase in consumption of highly processed foods, overwhelming use of electronic devices and lack of exercise has led to an ‘obesity crisis’ for Canadians, warns a Senate committee that is calling for a tax on sugary drinks and a ban on food and drink advertising aimed towards children.
In the report released on March 1, Senators say Canadians are paying for the crises with their wallets – and with their lives. But not all sides are on board with the proposed tax.
“The only thing a sugar tax will make thinner are Canadians’ wallets,” said Canadian Tax Payers’ federal director, Aaron Wudrick. “Good intentions do not always translate into good policy, and the record of these types of taxes in other jurisdiction leaves much to be desired.”
The committee is calling it an epidemic, one where it’s findings show that each year 48,000 to 66,000 Canadians die from conditions linked to excess weight since nearly two-thirds of adults and one-third of children are obese or overweight.
Treating obesity is not cheap. Obesity costs Canada between $4.6 billion and $7.1 billion annually in health care and lost productivity.
The report indicates that Canada’s food guide is no longer successful in providing effective nutritional guidance to Canadians.
Instead, the Senate proposed a list of recommendations in hopes that it will allow Canadians to change their diet:
- Consider a tax on sugar- and artificially-sweetened drinks
- Implement effective tax levers to encourage healthy lifestyles
- Ban the advertising of food and beverages to children
The increase in consumption of prepackaged, highly process foods such as instant noodles, candy, soft drinks, salty snacks and any other food in this category account for as much as 62 per cent of the Canadian diet.
The sugar-sweetened beverage tax proposal isn’t new
The Canadian Diabetes Association called for a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages last September because of its direct link to Type 2 diabetes.
“The number of Canadians with diabetes has doubled in the last 12 years and that growth continues with a new person diagnosed every three minutes, so we really have a public health crises on our hands,” said Dr. Jan Hux, chief scientific advisor at the association.
Hux says diabetes is related to lifestyle, genetics and environment.
“We know that obesity is a major risk factor for Type 2 diabetes and sugary drinks are a part of that. They are a source of high calories and often little or no nutrition,” she said.
“What I mean by a direct link is that if you had two people who were the same weight, even at a healthy weight, and one of them got a substantive portion of their calories from a sugary drink – one or two servings a day – the risk of Type 2 diabetes is 25 per cent higher. So a striking increased risk, just at a level of one or two servings a day, occurs even if the person is not obese. So that’s why we are calling for a tax on sugary drinks.”
Advocates of the tax have waited a long time for the results of Mexico’s 10 per cent tax, launched in January 2014.
However, the study, published in the British Medical Journal, determined sales of sugar-sweetened beverages fell by only six per cent in 2014.
Nonetheless, the study’s authors acknowledged that they couldn’t actually confirm if the reduction in sales were caused by the tax.
Taxes, jobs and the economy
Wudrick says the tax is a lose-lose situation.
“The reality is if you impose a tax that is significant, Canadians will simply cross the border to purchase these goods and so that harms Canadian business and you haven’t actually solved the health problem,” he said.
For The Canadian Beverage Association, worries are routed deeper.
“What we have seen in other jurisdictions that have introduced the tax is that there is job loss so as you can imagine the profit margin on tin of soda is pretty small so even a small dip in sales does impact the industry significantly,” says Carolyn Fell, senior communications director at the association.
While the beverage industry has been called out specifically by the report, Fell says sales in full calorie beverages have declined in the past 10 years by 20 per cent.
“From our industry’s perspective, we are being good stewards of our calorie pie. It’s like walking through a whole giant grocery story and picking up one product and saying ‘this is it. This is the one.’ We don’t think that’s right.”