The month of March ushered in news of a new report entitled “Obesity in Canada”. Submitted by the Senate, this report was a 21 recommendation paper to try and constructively address the growing concern of why Canadians are following its Southern neighbors in growing rates of obesity in both children and adults. In fact there are is a doubling in obesity in adults since 1980 and children’s obesity rates in this country have tripled in that time. This report was a breath of fresh air from a government group that many today look at with question of why they are even there.
As a Pharmacy owner that discontinued sale of such products in September of 2014, this story caught my eye. Anything having something to do with sugary beverages is a hot topic with the media, as I abruptly found out that day a year and a half ago. Even a small pharmacy in the middle of nowhere can make the national and international news by making “such a bold and forward thinking move” (as it was described) as stopping the sale of everything from pop, juice, vitamin water, sports drinks and chocolate milk.
Any talk of manipulating the sale of a staple in the Canadian diet will bring about cries of a “Nanny State move”. So when news hit that one of the recommendations from the Senate’s report was a proposed tax on such drinks, the naysayers came out of the woodwork, and along with them, the defenders of the plan. One of the first to press against the idea was Jim Goetz, the president of the Canadian Beverage Association who attempted to educate us in a biased way with stories of how this has been tried in other parts of the world and didn’t work, had no effect on obesity and resulted in lost jobs and increased grocery expenditures. Mr. Goetz is a name I learned back when I stopped selling these beverages and saw an article in rebuttal to this type of move. When I read of crazy claims that increased calorie intake had nothing to do with obesity, it really opened my eyes to the war that goes on in this category.
Granted there is no shortage of stories where an increase in tax on a target food group seemed to be a dud with respect to changes in obesity, even when the calorie intake did seem to drop. Denmark, Mexico, the United States, Finland, France, Hungary all are examples of stories where a tax was implemented with results that vary depending on who tells the story. In fact during a recent CBC Radio interview on the Senate report I gave recently, I was pressed on the success (or lack of) in such programs. I was quite persistent though on the complete irrelevance of the obesity outcome but rather we should focus on the fact that we need to pay for the adverse health issues that arise from the obesity that we know these beverages cause.
When I cross from Dartmouth to Halifax on either bridge, I expect to pay a toll. It doesn’t really cause me to take the long way around through Bedford, I pay the toll and drive over the bridge. I do it because I realize the upkeep of the bridge has to happen somehow and if I don’t pay it through tolls, I’ll sure as heck going to end up paying it some other way. It just makes sense for users to pay for that. When I buy tires for my car, I pay a fee that is to be used for the recycling of that tire at its end of life. You just do it because something has to happen to that tire when you’re done with it and that costs money to do.
If you agree that extra calorie intake results in obesity, then what is it that drains the healthcare budget of a country so quick when its population becomes more obese? Children with obesity are more likely to suffer from type 2 diabetes, hypertension and asthma. Adults with obesity have a higher incidence of depression, anxiety, heart disease and diabetes and also are more likely to be absent from work, pursue lower income jobs and earn lower overall wages (and in doing so pay less tax). Last year in the U.S., health care costs as a result of obesity reached $300 billion annually. A simple consideration in mathematics will show how this cost could be somewhat offset by a sugary beverage tax. Even though there are many reasons a nation becomes overweight, sugary beverages are one of them and you can consider it a user fee with that tax.
Lots of other great ideas came from the report, like an overhaul of the Canada Food Guide – without involvement from the food industry and one of my favorite recommendations, stricter controls on advertising unhealthy food and drinks for kids. Well done Canadian Senate!
Graham MacKenzie Ph.C.
Baddeck, Nova Scotia