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Canada - It’s time to tax our sugar already.
As Canadians we often pride ourselves as progressive leaders on social issues and the common good. One illustration of this common good has and will always be our healthcare system. As 2016 was winding down, the Federal government announced its intent to develop and implement a federal sugar tax as one of the next steps to improving our treasured healthcare apparatus. Implementing a sugar tax, and designing it based on lengthy consultation with stakeholders across Canada is a commitment that the government will be able to meet with relative ease.
Taxes on sugar and sugar-sweetened beverages have been attempted abroad and have been successful, most notably in Mexico, where purchases of sugar sweetened beverages have fallen, particularly among low-income citizens. Today, as a society we (and particularly, parents) are generally much more concerned about what goes into our foods and beverages as well as how they are made and where those ingredients have come from. Pediatricians, dentists, nurses, nutritionists, dieticians, academics and a range of other specialists are expressing deep support for a national tax on sugar in order to improve health outcomes across the country. Given all this support, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that a tax on sugar should be a universally accepted ‘slam-dunk’ of federal policy that will quickly become law. Sadly, this could not be farther from the truth.
At present, the voices in Ottawa that are speaking the loudest are not those of experts, concerned parents, or the scores of Indigenous communities plagued with epidemic levels of diabetes. The loudest voices are those promoting the advocacy of strong pro-sugar organizations. Taking a page from the Tobacco interest groups of decades past and political advocacy most of us would like to forget, these groups are pushing their agenda, harder and stronger than sugar tax proponents. In instances, these groups have gone directly to one of Canada’s most vulnerable populations in order to see success, our youth. Pro-sugar groups have been capitalizing on this vulnerable demographic by changing the argument from one of improving health outcomes, to making parents lives easier, as can be seen in a report from Global Research in 2013. These groups have targeted children as a demographic who would be most victimized by a sugar tax, no longer able to access the beverages and treats that they so enjoy. From these efforts, children then put pressure on their parents to support sugar sweetened beverage producers to ensure their favorite treat is still coming home from the grocery store. Reminiscent of the now defunct argument: "there is no link between smoking and lung or respiratory diseases," lawmakers in Ottawa are now hearing claims such as: "the link between taxation on sugar and improved health outcomes are not existent" as Sylvain Charlebois wrote in the Canadian Grocer in early 2016.
A federal sugar tax should not be seen as solely a tax on consumers or corporations, and the subsequent benefits to the Canadian public could be boundless. In international examples of successful sugar sweetened beverage taxation or a if a more general sugar taxation approach has been taken, companies who reduced sugar content in their products were rewarded, only their slow to change counterparts suffered at the hands of the tax. Further, Canada’s most vulnerable populations only serve to benefit from a sugar tax. Food security and food sovereignty in low-income families and in remote and indigenous communities are a direct and often leading contributor to poor health outcomes. A sugar tax can begin to make healthier low-cost options available to these groups so that their reliance on simply what is cheapest and most easily available (meaning not manufactured naturally, full of chemical sweeteners) is no longer their daily reality.
Consultations on a federal sugar tax will begin soon through committee hearings, legislative debate, and advocacy efforts. These settings are where policy makers will decide whether the tax will be toothless and in name only, or have the muscle to improve health outcomes across social boundaries and help us as Canadians live up to our pride in our health system. It is incumbent on Canadians and health nutrition and lifestyle advocates to share the discourse on this issue and ensure a healthy future for the next generation of Canadians.
Jonathan Telch, B.A., M.Sc.