Comment: Will sugary drinks be the new tobacco?


What do the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Portugal, Finland, Belgium, Hungary, South Africa have that Canadians don’t have? Taxes on sugary drinks.

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What do these countries know that we don’t? Very little. There is a growing awareness among Canadians of the danger of over-consumption of sugar. Most of us know that sugar provides little to no nutritional benefit, nor any positive contribution to health.

We know what it does to our teeth (cavities). Most of us are aware of the link between over-consumption of sugar and obesity, heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and cancer. Few, however, realize that sugary drinks are linked with heart disease and diabetes even in people with an apparently healthy weight. Sugary drinks are the single greatest contributor of sugar to our diets.

How bad is this? In 2015, Canadians purchased an average of 341 milli-litres of sugar-sweetened beverages per day. When 100 per cent fruit juice is included, the total sugary drink intake is 444 mls per day. That’s more than the equivalent of one can of pop per person, per day, every day.

To put it in perspective, that one can of pop per day (355 ml) provides the equivalent of 40 grams, or 10 teaspoons of sugar, without any nutrients and often with artificial dyes thrown in the mix. This alone is almost double the total daily amount of sugar (six tsp for women and nine for men) recommended by the Heart and Stroke Foundation and the World Health Organization.

Each can of pop delivers 160 non-nutritious calories that no Canadian needs. Sugary drinks don’t make your body feel full and might even drive hunger. A sugary drink with your meal adds calories, yet people eat the same amount of food to satisfy their hunger as if they had drunk water.

All those extra calories are stored as fat, and as most of us know, losing weight is a lot more difficult than gaining.

Now imagine your typical teenager. Canadian youth age 9 to 18 years report drinking an average of 578 mls per day containing up to 16 teaspoons of sugar — 2.5 times the recommended limit.

As a public-health researcher and a pediatrician, we see the consequences in the data and in the doctor’s office. We also know that it’s hard to change habits.

Our youth — the biggest consumers of these drinks — are at higher risk for becoming overweight and obese and possibly suffering chronic diseases later in life.

Children and youth are bombarded by advertising and they have ubiquitous access to a cornucopia of sugary drink options. The beverage industry cites data that show a decline in pop consumption. But it doesn’t acknowledge horrific increases over the past 12 years (2004-2015) in per capita consumption of other sugary drinks including energy drinks (+638 per cent), sweetened coffees (+579 per cent), flavoured water (+527 per cent), drinkable yogurt (+283 per cent), sweetened teas (+36 per cent), flavoured milk (+21 per cent) and sports drinks (+4 per cent).

Children and youth typically don’t have all the cognitive and behavioural tools to make healthy choices. Neither do adults.

We know from the fight against tobacco that we need to address the problem from many angles and create an environment that makes the healthy choice the easy and normal choice. We also know that Canadians, especially youth, are price-sensitive.

An excise levy (a tax paid at the time of manufacture, rather than at sale) on sugary drinks would increase the shelf price visible to consumers, thus affecting purchasing patterns. Evidence from other jurisdictions shows that price increases result in reduced purchasing of sugary drinks, with a shift to healthier alternatives such as water and unsweetened milk.

But in B.C. — unlike other provinces — provincial sales tax isn’t even charged on sugary drinks. It’s time to get this on the public-health agenda.


Patti-Jean Naylor is a professor at UVic’s School of Exercise Science, Physical and Health Education, and is co-founder of the B.C. Rethink Sugary Drinks Coalition. Dr. Tom Warshawski chairs the Canadian Childhood Obesity Foundation, and co-chairs the B.C. Rethink Sugary Drinks Coalition. He is a pediatrician in Kelowna.

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