A Senate committee is pushing Canada's federal government to consider implementing a sugar tax to combat rising national obesity rates, a tactic which, in my opinion, approaches public health all wrong.
"We can't sugarcoat it any longer," said Senator Kelvin Ogilvie in a press announcement. "There is an obesity crisis in Canada, and sugar is a big part of that problem."
Ogilvie worked with the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs to make over 20 recommendations for a healthier Canada. Many of the Committee's suggestions are much needed, like revamping Canada's extremely dated Food Guide (some items, like sugary juices, really don't belong on the Food Guide) and encouraging doctors to prescribe exercise to patients as a treatment for weight-related illnesses. But the committee also recommended that the federal government "assess the options for taxation levers with a view to implementing a new tax on sugar-sweetened as well as artificially sweetened beverages."
A sugar tax is a bad idea for several reasons.
More than 4 million Canadians, 1.15 million of whom are children, experience some form of food insecurity, which means they often don't know where their next meal will come from. Often, sugary juices are one of the cheapest food sources available. This is unfortunate, given that sugary drinks are linked to 180,000 deaths a year in Canada from diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer, according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation.
Here's the thing, though: Pricing lower-income people out of yet another food source option isn't the answer to Canada's diet-related public health crises as our population ages. Rather than punishing lower-income people for consuming one of the few food sources they can afford, government should focus on making healthy food more accessible and launching public education campaigns about diet and exercise. Otherwise, a sugar tax would effectively reduce real incomes in neighbourhoods where you can't find affordable healthy foods.
People don't necessarily buy sugary junk food and drinks because they want to. They consume it because they're addicted to sugar. The hidden sugar found in junk food is actually eight times as addictive as cocaine, according to research from Dr. Nicole Avena of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. MRI studies of the brains of food addicts show that they respond to junk foods “the way a cocaine addict would respond to being exposed to cocaine,” Dr. Valerie Taylor, chief psychiatrist at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, told The National Post.
And food addictions are more common that you might think in Canada. A study from Newfoundland's Memorial University found that one in 20 people are food addicts. We shouldn't punish people financially for hardwired sugar addictions that they may not be able to control on their own. Let's focus instead on addressing the advertising industry that preys on people's cravings for junk food and on expanding access to food addiction treatment centers. The senators' committee report also recommends banning targeting children in ads for food and beverages, which is a much stronger idea than taxing Canadian consumers.
The Senate committee noted that critics of taxing junk foods like sugar point out that agreeing on a clear definition of the term “unhealthy” will be difficult. After all, do you simply tax soft drinks, or do you tax juices too? Do you tax sugary sports drinks that are mismarketed as health beverages? At the end of the day, we all need to take individual responsibility for our own health and have access to tools and community resources that help us do so. Mandating what is and isn't healthy takes a top-down, paternalistic approach to public health while punishing Canadians financially for buying foods the government deems unhealthy. Government should instead work to empower us to find our own paths to health.
More: 5 steps of sugar rehab
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