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Canada: Senate committee calls for tax on sugary drinksThursday, March 03, 2016 > 10:30:02
Senators also want Food Guide overhauled in battle against obesity
The federal government should impose a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages such as pop, a Senate committee said Tuesday.
The tax is just one of several recommendations contained in the Senate committee’s report aimed at overhauling food rules to tackle high obesity and diabetes rates.
Among the other recommendations: Canada’s Food Guide should be urgently overhauled to reflect current scientific evidence.
The report paints a bleak picture of Canadians plagued with conditions linked to excess weight and takes direct aim at Health Canada’s recommendations on juices most commonly served at breakfast tables.
“Canada’s dated food guide is no longer effective in providing nutritional guidance to Canadians,” the report said. “Fruit juice, for instance, is presented as a health item, when it is little more than a soft drink without the bubbles.”
The report, which pegs the cost of obesity at between $4.6-billion and $7.1-billion a year in health-care needs and lost productivity, also suggested the committee got an earful on the failings of the food guide.
“Several witnesses suggested that Canada’s Food Guide has been at best ineffective and, at worst enabling,” it said.
An overhauled food guide should be based on the latest science and must make strong statements about restricting consumption of highly processed foods, the study added.
It is critical that the federal government act to address the obesity epidemic, committee chair Sen. Kelvin Ogilvie said Tuesday.
“We can’t sugar-coat it any longer,” he said. “The obesity crisis is real.”
A significant reduction in sugar consumption would go a long way toward promoting normal body weight and improved health, he added.
The report also suggested the government should consider a ban on advertising food and drinks to children.
The beverage industry quickly shot back Tuesday after the report was released.
In a statement, the Canadian Beverage Association rejected the sweetened-beverage tax option and said the drinks make up a small portion of calories in Canadian diets.
“This has been tried in other jurisdictions and it has failed. It didn’t reduce obesity. It increased the price of groceries, and resulted in job losses in the food and beverage sector,” CBA president Jim Goetz, said.
The CBA, which represents 60 pop, juice and other beverage brands, questioned the effectiveness of a tax. It said that while, yes, obesity and diabetes rates in Canada climbed steadily between 2003 and 2014, consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks fell consistently during the same time period.
It quoted Statistics Canada data from 2004 showing that soft drinks and fruit drinks accounted for only 4% of the average Canadian’s daily calories.
But one expert suggested that sugary beverages are too big a culprit to ignore if Ottawa wants to do something meaningful to improve the health of Canadians. There are other offenders in the diet that contribute to weight gain and the development of chronic disease, but perhaps none as clearly identifiable as sugar-sweetened beverages, said Ottawa-based obesity specialist Dr. Yoni Freedhoff.
“These are products we should be discouraging the consumption of and one of the levers that government has to utilize to help discourage the consumption of products that are themselves not good for the health of the population are taxes,” he said.
“We see that with alcohol, we see that with tobacco and I’m hoping we will be seeing it soon with sugar-sweetened beverages as well.”
In an interview with the Canadian Press, Health Minister Jane Philpott said the Liberal government is reviewing the tax proposal but noted there are no current plans to introduce it.
“I’m constantly surveying the landscape to look at how we can make sure that we encourage Canadians to have … healthy eating and drinking habits and so this is something that I’m certainly following closely,” she said. “We will continue to review it going forward.”
The fruit juice issue is also on the government’s radar, Philpott added.
“There is reason to be concerned about the sugar content of juice for sure and certainly any good dietician will tell you that it is best if we don’t drink our calories,” she said.
The Senate committee findings, which follow a study conducted between February 2014 and June 2015, suggest that without government action, the obesity problem will only get worse.
The numbers are already soaring—the number of obese adults in Canada has doubled since 1980 while the number of obese kids has tripled, the report said.
Each year, 48,000 to 66,000 Canadians die from conditions linked to excess weight, it added.
Canada isn’t the only country where there are calls for a sugar tax. In Britain, Prime Minster David Cameron’s upcoming strategy to combat childhood obesity is said to include a sugar tax, though it’s not clear if Cameron intends to impose the tax right away.
British health experts led by the non-profit Action on Sugar have spent the last year pushing the U.K. to go ahead with the tax. Also backing the tax is celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, who happens to be a pitchman for Sobeys here in Canada.
A recent report from Cancer Research U.K. and the U.K. Health Forum said that a 20% tax on sugary drinks could reduce obesity rates in Britain by 5% by 2025.
Both opponents and supporters of a tax point to Mexico, which imposed a tax on sugary beverages in January 2014. A British Medical Journal study found that sales of sugary drinks fell 6% that year, while sales of non-taxed drinks such as water and milk rose 4%.
But, the CBA pointed to research showing that the decline in consumption of sugary beverages in Mexico represented only 0.5% of total calorie intake (or between 10 and 15 calories per day) of the average Mexican diet of 3,024 calories.