Canada sugar drinks levy would save 13,000 lives, say researchers

By Rachel Arthur

- Last updated on GMT


Related tags Sugary drinks Nutrition Health

Health organizations in Canada are calling for a sugary drinks levy, with new research suggesting the measure would save 13,000 lives over the next 25 years. But the Canadian Beverage Association questions the data used by the research: and says that only cross-sector efforts will be effective. 

Research from the University of Waterloo, which was commissioned by health organizations such as Diabetes Canada and Heart & Stroke, says a sugary drinks levy would save thousands of lives and contribute to $11.5bn CAD ($8.6bn USD) in health care savings.  

A collection of 24 health organizations and individuals has endorsed a call for a sugary drinks levy, for consideration in the upcoming federal budget, the proceeds of which could be used to fund healthy living initiatives ‘including better public awareness of the harms of sugary drinks’.

The Canadian Beverage Association, however, points to a 20% reduction in daily per capita calories consumed from non-alcoholic drinks between 2004 and 2014. It has also set a target to reduce beverage calories by a further 20% by 2025.  

It says that fiscal interventions like consumption taxes ‘have not proven to be successful in terms of obesity reduction’​: instead calling for dialogue and collaboration between the industry, health organizations and public health officials to ‘create lasting change for Canadians’.

Mexico, France, Philadelphia… and Canada?

The researchers from the University of Waterloo say a 20% excise levy on the manufacturers of sugary drinks over the next 25 years would prevent 600,000 cases of obesity; 200,000 cases of type 2 diabetes; 60,000 cases of ischemic heart disease; 20,000 cases of cancer; and more than 8,000 strokes.

“This adds to the growing body of international evidence that supports the health and economic benefits of a sugary drink levy,”​ add researchers.

“Studies show that a levy on sugary beverages decreases consumption. Examples of successful implementation of sugary drink levies are found in Mexico, France, Hungary, Finland, Norway, Belgium, Chile, Barbados, and an expanding list of jurisdictions in the US (for example Berkeley and Philadelphia) among others. 

“In Mexico, purchases of taxed beverages have decreased over two consecutive years and purchases of healthy beverages are up.”

The researchers acknowledge that a levy is not the only solution to obesity: however, “given Canadians are drinking an unhealthy amount of sugary drinks, which are the single greatest contributor of sugar in our diets—and a significant driver of chronic disease and obesity -  a levy is a critical component of a broader strategy to promote healthy eating and drinking.”

Sugary drink sales in Canada

In 2015, Canadians purchased an average of 341ml of SSBs per day (and an average of 444ml of sugary drinks per day when accounting for 100% juice), says the report. 

They also call for restrictions on marketing unhealthy foods to children, improving labeling, and providing better access to affordable healthy foods and water.

45% of beverages purchased are no or low calorie

But the Canadian Beverage Association questions the data used in the research.

“Sound public health policy must be based on the most substantive, rigorous sources of research available,” ​it says, responding to the University of Waterloo study. 

“The report findings, however, are based on data that do not reflect the Canadian beverage marketplace. The data set from Euromonitor used in the analysis for this report included non-diet carbonated beverages, along with whole-category volumes (both low calorie and full calorie) for other beverage categories.

“All of these beverage categories would include some percentage of reduced-calorie varieties, and therefore the reported findings do not reflect the Canadian beverage marketplace, where more than 45% of beverages purchased are no- or low-calorie.”

It also says that the University of Waterloo researchers have assumed a relationship between taxation and lower body mass index.

“While the beverage industry supports efforts to address serious obesity and obesity-related diseases, it is illogical to isolate one single ingredient or product as a unique contributor. Experts, including Health Canada, agree that the factors associated with these issues are complex, and include overall health behaviours, and broader social, environmental and biological determinants.”

The health and economic impact of a tax on sugary drinks in Canada: Amanda C. Jones; J. Lennert Veerman; David Hammond.

Funded by the Canadian Cancer Society, Diabetes Canada, The Childhood Obesity Foundation, The Chronic Disease Prevention Alliance of Canada, and the Heart & Stroke Foundation. 

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