Obesity is a chronic health condition that is characterized by excess body fat, which increases an individual’s risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, depression, and cancer among other severe health conditions. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the global prevalence of obesity among adults has doubled since 1980 to affect more than 600 million people worldwide. As a result, obesity has reached epidemic proportions and become a major global health challenge.
In Canada, the prevalence of obesity has drastically increased since 1985, with 22% of adults classified as obese today. Importantly, obesity not only impacts the health of individuals, it also costs our economy an annual $4.6-7.1 billion in healthcare and loss of productivity expenses.
This rise in obesity has been attributed to an increased consumption of foods that are more energy-dense and nutrient-poor, with high levels of sugar and saturated fats. Combined with a sedentary lifestyle, we now have the ingredients needed for a person to become obese. However, it is important to note that obesity is preventable.
One of the recommended courses of action to address obesity by the WHO is to implement a 20% “sugar tax” as a financial disincentive, with the aim to encourage individuals to reduce their intake of certain unhealthy foods – principally pop and other sweetened beverages. Evidence indicates that consumption of sweetened beverages is associated with increased obesity rates. The hope is that this tax would have a similar effect on obesity as the tax on tobacco products has had on smoking prevalence.
An important issue to consider with regards to the implementation of a sugar tax is that the prevalence of obesity is higher among individuals with a low socioeconomic status (SES). Importantly, a recent study found that individuals with a low SES tend to consume more sweetened beverages. Thus, placing such a tax on sweetened beverages may help reduce health inequities related to being overweight and obese, as a study from Mexico showed that a 10% sugar tax reduced the sale of sweetened beverages by 17% among individuals with a low SES, compared to 12% in the overall population.
However, the implementation of such a tax is not straightforward. Such a tax could increase health inequities as individuals with a low SES who continue to purchase sweetened beverages will be forced to pay more now, thus aggravating their economic situation. For comparison, a Canadian study found that the tax on smoking products did not greatly decrease the prevalence of smoking among people with a low SES. Instead, it placed a financial burden on these people. There has also been some push-back from the Canadian Beverage Association, which warns of increased costs for groceries. This would also unfairly impact individuals with a lower SES by potentially causing food insecurity. Moreover, such a tax could present a slippery slope – where would the taxation stop? On fatty foods? Salty foods? Such taxes would just further financially burden low SES households. Finally, there is no definitive proof yet from the nations that have adopted a sugar tax that it would indeed reduce the prevalence of obesity.
So, now that you’re more familiar with the sugar tax, do you believe that it should be implemented in Canada?