Get tax to fight fat, says study

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New analysis calls for law to stop obesity

Legislators should step up their legal battle against junk food, says a new analysis.

An analysis published by the Canadian Medical Association Journal Tuesday calls on federal and provincial legislators to do more to keep Canada fit. Flagging fast-food consumption and falling exercise rates as “a global health emergency,” it called on lawmakers to use advertising bans and junk food taxes to encourage healthy living amongst Canadians.

Governments have a justifiable and important role in creating conditions where citizens can enjoy health, says Nola Ries, report co-author and law professor with the University of Victoria’s Health Law Institute. “This doesn’t mean that governments should dictate what people should eat or how much exercise they get,” she says in an email, “but governments should consider ways that laws can help make a healthy choice an easier choice.”

Legislating fitness

Last month, Statistics Canada reported new evidence that Canadians were significantly less fit today than they were 20 years ago, contributing to higher rates of heart and bone disease. Based on current trends, the agency estimates that about half of Canada’s over-40 population will be clinically obese by 2035.

Provincial, federal, and international health groups have all called for legal measures to stop this rise in obesity, Ries writes in her report. Some 30 U.S. states have put taxes on junk food, it notes, while Quebec and Norway have restricted food ads to children.

Canada already has taxes on alcohol that discourage consumption, Ries says, and exempts healthier foods such as milk from the GST. These taxes weren’t high enough to make a big health difference, however. U.S. experts have proposed a penny-per-ounce tax on soft drinks that could trim about two pounds off the average person — not much, she admits, but it would collect about US$15 billion to treat weight-associated diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

Proof, attitude barriers

St. Albert MLA Ken Allred wasn’t wild about the idea of a junk food tax, saying that an education campaign might be more appropriate at this time. “People have got to be responsible for their health and avoid junk food.”

There haven’t been many calls for fitness regulation in the government either, apart from the 2008 provincial fitness tax credit (which has yet to be proclaimed or funded).

Legislators may be ideologically opposed to fitness regulation, Ries says, believing it should be up to individuals to stay fit. Others want proof the laws work, which she admits can be tough to find: most U.S. attempts are fairly recent and still under review.

These laws are common sense, says Glenn Wilson, a phys-ed instructor at St. Albert’s Leo Nickerson Elementary and fitness advocate, but politicians shun them because they’re unpopular. He helped set up a fitness tax credit system for the Cayman Islands and says it has already produced results. “When you hit people in the pocketbook, it does change [behaviour]very quickly.”

Canada should consider mandating calorie information on fast-food menus, Ries says, or bulking up fitness tax credits for kids. More walkable neighbourhoods would also encourage physical activity.

Municipal governments should take the lead on this issue, Wilson says. Helsinki, he notes, has banned junk food ads, created property tax credits for active residents and given students free access to fitness centres during school hours. The province could follow through with tax credits for non-smokers and health-club users. “The positives of a healthier lifestyle must outweigh the negatives of an unhealthy one.”

The article is available at www.cmaj.ca.

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Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.