Canadian fat tax brings super-sized debate

The impact of obesity on Canadians is expanding faster than their waistbands.

According to Statistics Canada, over half the country’s population is now considered either overweight or obese. The Public Health Agency of Canada estimated that in 2005 obesity-related conditions alone accounted for over $4 billion in direct and indirect costs to the health care system.

Those who are overweight face detrimental health effects that run the gamut from the obvious — diabetes and heart attack — to the more unlikely — cancers of the esophagus, kidney and colon. In an effort to curb the rise of obesity, proposals have been made in the past few years to tax unhealthy foods, with the idea brought up most recently by the Canadian Medical Association and the B.C. Medical Association. Both are calling for more government intervention between children and high-fat and high-sugar foods.

Statistics Canada indicated over 23 per cent, or 5.5 million Canadians were obese in 2004, with a body mass index of over 30 (a healthy BMI is around 20-25). Numbers from the previous year found over 36 per cent or 8.6 million Canadians were overweight with BMIs greater than 25.

A fat-tax could potentially increase the price of foods with low nutrient value in an effort to make people think twice before purchasing cheap foods, which are often calorie-rich and nutrient-poor. The CMA has also suggested restricting the advertising for these foods to children.

“Obesity is definitely a problem in Canada,” said Alberta Health Services registered dietitian Devon Guy. “In several countries, trends towards a western diet, including foods high in concentrated sugar and fats, along with sedentary lifestyles, has contributed to the growing obesity epidemic.”

The exact percentage of a potential tax varies. In August 2010, The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada released a report advising a 20 per cent increase in the price of sugary soft drinks. The average Canadian drinks 73 liters of soda per year.

A report by Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity predicted that for every 10 per cent increase in the price of soda, an 8-10 per cent decrease in consumption will follow.

In February 2011, Canadian Medical Association president John Turnbull supported the tax as long as the extra cash afforded to the government would be used to subsidize fresh fruit and vegetables.

There is international precedence for this discussion. Britain pledged $390 million to curb obesity nationwide last year and is considering implementing a fat-tax to redouble their efforts. While no countries currently impose a fat tax, Romania, Denmark, Spain and even some American cities including New York and Philadelphia are all considering one.

Some Canadians consider the proposal simply a tax grab that will be ineffective.

“I want to say yes [to the tax] because I love fruit,” said second-year business student Caroline Pang. “But I feel like that’s not the best motivation to get people to eat better.”

In an email interview, representative Stephanie Baxter from the Canadian Beverage Association, a firm that represents “the majority of non-alcoholic beverage companies in Canada,” outlined the industry’s position against the tax.

“At the Canadian Beverage Association, we agree that obesity is a serious issue, but we feel that the idea of targeting and taxing particular products to fight the problem of obesity or to simply raise government funds is misguided and ineffective,” Baxter said. “The only consensus that exists is that obesity is a complex problem that is caused by the interplay of many different factors relating to diet and exercise and that no single factor is uniquely to blame.”

An October 2010 Harvard School of Public Health study found regular consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages were linked to a greater risk of weight gain and Type 2 diabetes.

Melissa Potestio is an instructor at the department of community health sciences at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Medicine and the author of numerous articles on obesity in Canada. In discussing the possible future of Canadian health policy on the topic of obesity, Potestio commented that “any approach to supporting healthy weights needs to be multifaceted and include social, economic, political and physical factors.”

On March 7, the federal government launched a Canada-wide dialogue on childhood obesity. The government said the feedback will contribute to a meeting of territorial, provincial and federal health ministers in November, when a report on obesity will be written.

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