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Comment: It’s time to make sugary sodas pay their way

No one likes paying taxes, but most of us understand that taxes are necessary to fund the government programs that we value, such as social services, education and health care.

No one likes paying taxes, but most of us understand that taxes are necessary to fund the government programs that we value, such as social services, education and health care. More than 40 per cent of provincial tax revenue is spent on health care, and British Columbians approve of taxation to fund this program.

Wise tax policy should enhance the health of British Columbians by encouraging practices that maintain health and discouraging dangerous habits. It makes sense to levy extra taxes on products that drive up health-care costs, such as tobacco. Tobacco taxes dissuade consumption by increasing the product’s price and the resulting revenue helps the province recoup the dollars expended on treating tobacco-induced illness.

With the growing evidence linking sugary drinks to excess weight gain and chronic illness, it is time we considered applying a similar tax policy to sugar-sweetened beverages.

Unhealthy weights are a significant factor in the development of hypertension, stroke, heart disease, some cancers and most cases of Type 2 diabetes. Obesity-related illness costs the province more than $450 million per year, causes hundreds of deaths and threatens the long-term sustainability of our health-care system.

While no single product is responsible for excess weight gain, there is very strong evidence that sugar-sweetened beverages are particularly problematic and that reducing their consumption would be of major benefit.

Sugary drinks are uniquely linked to excess weight gain as, unlike calories from solid food, the body tends not to feel full when fed liquid calories. In addition, there is evidence that many people will actually eat more solid food after drinking sugary drinks than they would have had they drunk water. It is especially troublesome for a product marketed as a thirst-quencher to be consumed with meals.

The danger posed by sugary drinks goes beyond the fact that they lead to obesity. Sugary drink consumption is linked to hypertension, hyperlipidemia and Type 2 diabetes in individuals of normal weight. This knowledge has prompted the World Health Organization to recommend limiting our intake of added sugars to less than 100 calories per day, much less than the dose of sugar found in a typical can of pop.

Sugary drinks are ubiquitous, inexpensive and consumed in large quantities by many Canadians. According to recent Canadian and American studies, up to 15 per cent of obesity can be attributed to sugary-drink consumption. Once all health impacts are factored in, sugary drinks cost British Columbians an added $90 million per year in health-care expenditures.

Many organizations concerned with health promotion, such as the B.C. Medical Association, the Canadian Medical Association, Dietitians of Canada, Canadian Diabetes Association and the B.C. Healthy Living Alliance, have recognized the importance of reducing sugary-drink consumption. Most have recommended that government place an extra tax on these products.

Unfortunately, in B.C., sugary drinks are not even subject to provincial sales tax.

Consumers of sugary drinks are not paying their fair share of taxes. Taxing sugary drinks would enhance personal responsibility, as those who drive up health-care costs as a result of consuming sugary drinks would also contribute a greater amount to tax revenue. A tax on sugary drinks will decrease consumption of these products and this will have positive effects on the health of British Columbians.

A tax on sugary drinks could also be used to help British Columbians become healthier by helping to offset the costs associated with being more physically active. Revenue could be used to provide incentives to purchase health-promoting goods and services such as bicycles, sporting goods and gym memberships.

The majority of British Columbians support a tax on sugary drinks if the proceeds are used for health promotion. Now is the time for policy makers to consider how to tax smarter in order to help British Columbians live longer.

Dr. Tom Warshawski is chairman of the Childhood Obesity Foundation and past president of the B.C. Pediatric Society.