Island Voices: The case for taxing sugary drinks

Krista Banasiak is the manager, research and public policy, in the department of science and policy at Diabetes Canada in Ottawa.

Fat tax, junk-food tax, sugary-drink tax — whatever the term used to describe it, taxing unhealthy foods and beverages is on the agenda of public-health policy experts.

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In Canada, the idea of implementing a manufacturer’s levy on sugary drinks has been raised with governments for the past several years, and is supported by many leading health-care organizations.

A recent op-ed in the Times Colonist argues that a sugary drink tax is a “bad idea and should be abandoned.” The authors argue that there is little evidence to support the relationship between taxes, consumption patterns and health benefits. Further, they argue such a tax would hurt people living with Type 1 diabetes.

But their analysis misses the mark.

Access to readily and rapidly available sugar is essential for treating low blood sugar for people living with diabetes.

Several alternatives are available to do this. We recognize that sugary drinks are fast-acting carbohydrates and might be a preferred choice for those living with Type 1 diabetes as a way of treating low blood sugar.

Diabetes Canada respects individual choice when it comes to food and nutrition. It is our hope that sharing information and research about the impact of consuming these products will help the broader public understand that regular consumption of sugary drinks has little-to-no health benefit.

Indeed, many people with Type 1 diabetes have indicated that they support the intervention because it might actually help to prevent Type 2 diabetes for some individuals — a risk reduction that is not available to people with Type 1 diabetes.

As the authors note, obesity is a serious health issue in Canada. We agree, fuelling the urgent need for initiatives that have been proven to be effective in other jurisdictions. To health-policy advocates, the direct link between sugar-sweetened beverages and the development of Type 2 diabetes requires special attention that, unfortunately, this article failed to consider.

A food environment that promotes overweight, obesity and Type 2 diabetes is a concern for us all. Type 2 diabetes develops as a result of behavioural, environmental, and genetic factors. People with Type 2 diabetes either do not produce enough insulin, or their body is resistant to its effects.

Research has now clearly demonstrated that there is a direct link between consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and the development of Type 2 diabetes.

What does that mean?

When it comes to regularly consuming sugary drinks and the development of Type 2 diabetes, increases in body weight aren’t necessarily part of the equation. Sugary drinks independently increase the risk for developing Type 2 diabetes.

Meaning that even at the same weight, if a substantial portion of someone’s calories come from sugar-sweetened beverages, they would have a 20 per cent higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes compared with someone whose calories come from other sources.

The article sites that places that have implemented a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages did not see any “meaningful” changes in consumption patterns. This is not the case.

Other jurisdictions that have implemented a tax, such as the United Kingdom, France, Finland, Belgium, Berkeley and San Francisco in California and Philadelphia have seen decreases in consumption between three and 12 per cent.

In Mexico, decreases of 17 per cent were reported among low-income households, which often have the highest rates of consumption. These places have also seen increases in sales of water and unsweetened milk, options that are much better for healthy hydration.

We accept that this decrease in sales are not the sole answer; however, that is no reason to turn away from applying a levy on sugary drinks.

Nobody said that this will solve the problem entirely. It is one tool in a suite of interventions that could be used to decrease consumption further. When considered alongside other population health initiatives such as public education campaigns, front-of-package labelling, and restricting marketing to kids, the case for the use of levies is stronger, and none can be measured in isolation.

Plus, a levy would play an important role in denormalizing the consumption of sugary drinks. It would challenge social norms and cultural standards that condone sugary-drink consumption. A levy would signal the risk associated with consuming sugary drinks and, hopefully, give people pause, so that if they choose to consume these beverages, they do so self-consciously.

The relationship between sugary- drink consumption and Type 2 diabetes necessitates special attention that the Times Colonist article referenced. Taxing sugar sweetened beverages would be a step in the right direction toward preventing the development of Type 2 diabetes and bettering the health of all Canadians.

Let’s follow the evidence and forward-thinking approach of other jurisdictions that are already benefiting from this intervention.

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