A report by the Senate is asking the federal government to put a higher price on sugary beverages in an effort to “tip the scales” on obesity rates.
Canada’s obesity rates have risen at an alarming rate over the past 30 years.
Statistics Canada reported in 2012 that almost two thirds of Canadian adults are either overweight or obese. Thirteen per cent of children between the ages of five and 17 were found to be obese and another 20 per cent overweight.
That’s a two-fold increase in the proportion of obese adults and three-fold increase in the proportion of obese children since 1980.
The link between added sugars and refined carbohydrates and weight gain has been becoming clearer over the years.
Added, or free, sugars are metabolized quicker and cause insulin levels to spike, which can lead to the production of excess body fat, insulin resistance and eventually Type 2 diabetes.
The fructose contained in the syrup used to create soda also causes an overproduction of fat by the liver – fat that is stored in and around your waistline and can lead to serious health problems like heart disease.
Last year, the World Health Organization recommended that an individual’s added sugar consumption be limited to five per cent of total daily calorie intake. That amounts to about 25 grams or six teaspoons of sugar per day. A 350 ml bottle of soda contains 35 grams of sugar.
The Liberal government has already taken steps to reduce Canadians’ sugar consumption through better labeling and nutritional information. The Senate wants it to go a step further with the introduction of a sugar tax aimed at sugar-sweetened and artificially sweetened drinks.
The Senate committee was told that “sugary beverages are the primary source of added sugar in our diet and are the primary driver of obesity,” given that they do not contribute to satiety and can encourage overconsumption.
There currently exists very little evidence to support the implementation of a tax would reduce the consumption of sugary drinks.
“Data around the world is mixed,” said Timothy Caulfield, Canada research chair of the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta. “There’s some promising data coming from Mexico right now, but it’s complicated to study.”
A recent study showed positive correlations between Mexico’s 2013 introduction of an excise tax on “non-dairy and non-alcoholic beverages with added sugar” and the declining consumption of these drinks. The study recorded an average six-per-cent decrease in sales for the first year of implementation, with the biggest reduction among the lower socioeconomic households at an average of nine per cent.
Hungary’s 29-per-cent increase in cost not only led to a 27-per-cent drop in sales for food and beverages high in salt, sugar and caffeine, but to 40 per cent of food manufacturers reformulating their products.
Other jurisdictions such as Denmark have implemented and subsequently cancelled the vastly unpopular tax. France has been criticized for not introducing a tax that is high enough to effect change.
Despite these conflicting reports, Caulfield says Canadians can only gain from the policy change.
“Even if it doesn’t have a huge impact on obesity rates, it still could be a good thing, because it changes the way we think about food,” said Caulfield, who testified before the Senate committee in October 2014. “By taxing certain foods it’s a signal that this isn’t the way to eat healthy. It promotes a healthy lifestyle, and also it’s a way of generating revenue that could be used for the purpose of promoting healthy lifestyle.”
St. Albert dietitian Diane Jackshaw disagrees with this approach and would like to see the opposite happen: the subsidization of whole foods such as fruits and vegetables.
Jackshaw doesn’t believe that an additional “30 cents on a bag of chips” is enough to deter consumers or make them think of picking up a fruit. Instead taxing junk food could have a detrimental on already vulnerable populations.
“The very poor populations, they don’t have access to healthy foods. Putting a tax on junk foods is just going to make their situation worse,” said Jackshaw.
According to the Senate report, one in eight Canadian households is food insecure.
Low-income Canadians are often restricted to calorie-rich, nutrient-poor processed meals because it’s all that they can afford.
The Senate limited the taxation of unhealthy foods to sugar-laden beverages for this reason. It also recommended that a study be conducted on ways to increase affordability of healthy foods and asked the federal government to report back with this information by the end of the year.
Taxation or subsidies that bring about a price increase or drop of 10 per cent are expected to result in a change in consumption of two per cent.
The list of 21 recommendations also includes banning the advertisement of food and beverages to children.