How involved should the government be in your grocery list? That’s the question now being debated by pro and anti “sugar tax” lobbyists as levels of obesity and diabetes continue to rise in North America.
In fact, most experts are now describing this trend as an ‘epidemic’, and alarming new documentaries like Fed Up liken sugar (as the main obesity culprit) to cocaine and place the blame squarely at the feet of food manufacturers.
According to obesitynetwork.ca, one in four adult Canadians and one in ten children are clinically obese, meaning there are over six million Canadians living with obesity. More importantly – at least in the government’s eyes – the direct costs of being overweight and obesity have been estimated at $6 billion – 4.1 % of Canada’s total healthcare budget.
So if sugar is the new tobacco, why not tax it and use those funds to pay for its negative effects? Here’s what we’re discussing:
Not Such a Big Leap
In Canada, we already have lots of tax exemptions for “essentials” like basic food and grocery products. Snack foods and sugary drinks are exempt from this, so we already pay more taxes for unhealthy foods than fruit and vegetables. On top of that, we already have many ‘sin taxes’. In fact, Canada has some of the highest rates of taxes on cigarettes and alcohol in the world. You could easily argue that this is simply an extension of that idea.
The Argument For
A number of years ago, the American Heart Association reported that sweetened beverages are the largest contributor of added sugars in our diets; this is why lawmakers and advocacy groups are calling for a ‘soda tax’ rather than an all-round ban on added sugar.
Many studies have shown that this kind of tax does cut consumption of sodas; one study found that a 10 percent tax on soda led to a 7 percent reduction in calories from soft drinks. These researchers believe that an 18 percent tax on these foods could cut daily intake by 56 calories per person, resulting in a weight loss of 5 pounds per person per year, which could prevent millions of cases of diabetes annually (as well as thousands of strokes and premature deaths).
The Argument Against
Dig a little on the other side and you’ll find that there are also studies which refute the claims about sugar dangers (this surprising Financial Post article says that sugar has been found to be as safe as spring water).
But the major argument against another ‘sin tax’ is the increasing power of the Nanny State. The anti-soda tax camp says that if government is given the power to tax certain food and drinks in the name of public health then there’s no limit to the laws that can be passed under this umbrella.
Many argue that health care decisions are deeply personal, and that by essentially ‘making the decision for us’ the government is patronising and disrespecting free, responsible adults. Additionally, research has shown that taxes would have to be raised ‘substantially’ in order to see significant changes in weight, and that in any case, people who are denied sugar in one form will simply switch to another source.
Others have claimed that this is a tax, which would unfairly burden the poor – the main consumers of soft drinks – and ask “where is the tax on sugar-laden Starbucks venti lattes?” To complete their case, anti-soda tax lobbyists say that the solution to obesity is a complex one, and that a drink tax will not make overweight consumers buy more vegetables or exercise more. What it will do, they say, is make our government richer and jeopardize businesses and jobs.
What Are the Other Solutions?
Even if we abandon the idea of a sugar tax, we cannot abandon the idea of curbing our nation’s collective weight gain. Some areas have already begun their ‘war on sugar’ by removing soft drinks machines from schools, and offering healthier options in school and workplace canteens. A move to curb the candy and soda advertising that tempts young people would help, as would more PE classes and community sports programs.
What do you think? Are you for or against this ‘fat tax’?