Guest Commentary

Dr. Yoni Freedhoff

The Case For A Sugar Tax

My kids are pretty savvy at the ages of 6, 8 and 11 but they’re no match for the food industry, biopsychologists, marketing professionals, billion-dollar budgets and celebrities like Beyonce and Sidney Crosby. It’s just not a fair fight. Moreover, many of our most trusted institutions offer our kids junk foods every day: schools, churches, synagogues, city hockey arenas. It is everywhere.

The food industry is very powerful in Ottawa. It lobbied over the angle of the milk carton on the Canada Food Guide. Every tiny detail of any nutrition policy is vigorous scrutinized by lobbyists.  Anybody whose product is threatened understandably marshals a defence. It’s their job to sell us as much of their products as is humanly possible.

Diet and weight-related chronic diseases are the number one preventable causes of death in Canada, yet we are told the solution is individual willpower. The tobacco industry used the same justification to sell cigarettes that consumers could simply choose not to smoke. It’s a self-serving rationale that grossly oversimplifies the problem.

While no single raindrop is responsible for Canada’s flood of obesity and other chronic non-communicable diseases, sugar is a very juicy raindrop. Data from the sugar industry in the U.S. states 7% of average daily calories consumed are from soda, and Canada isn’t likely to be a great deal lower. The number likely climbs even higher if we include other sugar-sweetened beverages such as sports and energy drinks, and flavoured waters. The rate climbs to about 10 percent for teenagers. Sugar-sweetened beverages provide no benefit from a health perspective, aren’t sating, and as a consequence are ripe for regulation.

If you live in 21st century Canada you must go out of your way to make healthy decisions. That’s a function of the environment. The world has not suffered an epidemic of loss of willpower, it has suffered a toxic change in our food environment. There is no single country in the world that has turned back the dial on obesity rates.  It’s a flood, and yet all our government seems to be doing is telling us to make sure we give our children swimming lessons.

Though there will be no singular solution, no doubt part of the way forward will be a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. When Mexico introduced an 8¢ sugar tax on beverages in 2014, consumption fell 12 percent – and more people drank water. The tax revenues fund projects that complement the initiative, like installing more water fountains in schools.

Finland put a $1 a kilogram tax on candies, chocolate and ice cream. France charges an extra 10¢ per liter on drinks with sugar and artificial sweeteners. When Hungary imposed a tax of up to $1.30 on sugary drinks in 2011, sales dropped 27 percent according to the OECD.

We have to change the food environment as well. We need labeling of calories on menu boards; regulations that stop the sale of junk food in schools; better nutrition education; and a ban on junk food marketing to children like Québec’s 1980 amendments to its Consumer Protection Act. It prohibits food ads targeting TV viewers under 13. The Heart & Stroke Foundation credits the ban with curbing junk food sales in the province, which also has one of the lowest childhood obesity rates in the country.

Our food environment can be regulated by Parliament, or it can be regulated by class action lawsuits. Without question there will be obesity-related litigation in the future, just as there was with tobacco.

And these initiatives can’t come too soon. We don’t have the luxury to wait.

(Editor’s note: the author is medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute of Ottawa and inaugural Family Medicine Chair of the Canadian Obesity Network)

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