Earlier this week Dietitians of Canada (DC) put out a press release calling for a 10-20% tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. For those of you who complain that this would just be another example of the government sticking it’s nose where it doesn’t belong, here is my counterargument.
We eat too much sugar
The World Health Organization recommends that free sugars should not make up more than 10% of a person’s daily caloric intake. As mentioned in the DC press release, Canadians are exceeding this by a fair margin (~15%). Diets high in free sugars put individuals at risk for overweight and obesity, as well as dental caries. Given the fact that roughly 66% of Canadians are overweight or obese, the government needs to look for ways to reduce the amount of free sugars we consume.
A significant portion of free sugar in our diet comes from sugar-sweetened beverages
Are soft-drinks the only problem? No, but they’re one of the biggest contributors to free sugars in our diets. It has been estimated that 7-8% of the daily caloric intake of Canadian adolescents is from sugar-sweetened beverages. If we want to reduce the amount of free sugars we consume, sugar-sweetened beverages seems like a logical target.
Taxes have an impact on purchasing decisions
As someone who just got stuck with a bill from Egyptian Customs of 100 USD (a tax rate of nearly 200%!) on a recent purchase of running shoes I had shipped from the US, I understand as good as anyone that taxes affect purchasing decisions. If something costs more, we buy less of it. That’s economics 101.
We happen to have a real life example of a soda-tax working to reduce the public’s consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages. In 2014 Mexico implemented a 1 peso per litre tax, essentially raising the prices of sugar-sweetened beverages by 10%. You know what happened? In the first year, Mexican’s reduced their purchases of sugar-sweetened beverages by 6%. That may not sound like a lot, but as far as other health policy initiatives go, it’s significant. No one is arguing that this alone will solve the obesity epidemic, but it certainly appears to be part of the solution.
I have no doubt that the food industry will provide major push-back on such a tax, but I would hope that government could stand up to them in the interest of public health.
We already tax other products deemed unhealthy to deter use
It’s not like a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages would be unprecedented. We already tax things like tobacco and alcohol. The taxes are built into the price, just like they would be for sugar-sweetened beverages. One might debate the government’s motives for such taxes (revenue generation vs. public health), but I would argue, does it really matter? If you’re making certain unhealthy choices less desirable, regardless of the motivation, the outcome is still the same – less consumption.
Sugar-sweetened beverages won’t cease to exist
What annoys me most about this debate are those who cry that a soda-tax takes away our freedom of choice. They make it seem as though under such a plan we would no longer have access to our beloved Coca Cola, etc. Similar arguments were made years ago when New York passed legislation banning the use of large soda cup sizes (which have unfortunately since been repealed). It’s an absurd position. No one would be preventing you from purchasing your favorite sugar-sweetened beverage. It just might mean that the next time you head to the convenient store, because of the added cost of sugar-sweetened beverages, perhaps you’ll chose them less often.. That’s all.
As far as public health initiatives go, a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages seems like no real no-brainer to me. Have I convinced you?