Taxing Sugar

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Taxing Sugar

Eighteen countries have tried a sugar tax. Does it work? Could we tax our way out of diabetes and obesity?  The price hike worked with controlling tobacco use and there’s evidence that the sugar tax is working in countries like Mexico where the measure has been in place for the past few years.

Adolescents and low-income people are more sensitive to tax hikes, but they’re also the group with the higher sugar consumption prevalence and thus, they have the most to gain. The money saved can be used for healthier alternatives.

Sugar has an impact on the brain by exciting the pleasure centers. High sugar products are heavily marketed to children and adolescents, a precarious timeframe when their tastes develop. Adolescents are especially high consumers of sugary drinks, boys more than girls. There is no benefit from this and their dental health tend to be very poor as a result of these sugary beverages.

The average person does not know that there is 10 teaspoons of sugar in their coke. The average person also isn’t aware that sugar contributes to diabetes and obesity.

Prevention and education programs that start at an early age and include the whole family is most critical. A sugar tax can help accelerate this outreach effort because while education is important, it’s not sufficient enough on its own and a tax can be a powerful step in the right direction to incite change.

Industry drives demand and consumption. Highly processed foods are cheap to produce and there’s a high profit margin as a result. Advertising heavily targets children and adolescents and these products are so available to them, they’re everywhere! What’s more, by the time you’re fat or obese, you’ve changed the hormones in your brain and you’ve also changed your gut bacteria. This will stay with you and reinforce the addiction to sugar and high saturated (processed) fat foods.

What can Canada do? If you single out a product, like sugary drinks and link research to its harm and then apply a measure such as an increase in tax, that will in turn decrease consumption, purchasing and health risks. Framing the tax as part of a strategy to change consumption patterns.

Some countries like the U.K. have put a varying tax price based on the sugar amount. The point here is to encourage companies to change the amount of sugar in the food supply without requiring the population to do anything. The U.K. tax only applies to high sugar products, not sugar-free drinks. It’s one way to shift consumption patterns as companies will hopefully respond if we push them to healthier and healthier measures.

Why are sugary drink companies fighting this? Because of the view that regulation is a bad thing in any form: the enemies of regulation are the enemies of science, so they say. But I think there’s a real fear within corporations that it may work and work really well, and that they will therefore loose money (initially). But in terms of community interest and health benefits, this is very important and needs to be seriously considered by our health officials.

How effective has the sugar tax been in countries that have put it in place? Well in Mexico where the proof of concept is being formed, in the last 2 years with the 10% tax consumption has gone down 7.6%. Berkley, California has seen a 27% decline with a 20% retail tax. In the U.K. the sugar levels on many drinks are already going down, hence so is consumption.

What should we do with the earnings from the tax? Support the farmers to transition from sugar cane farming to produce farming? Perhaps. But a sugar farmer’s income is more dependent on the market price for sugar and therefore hardly affected by the sugar tax. Moreover, most sugar is imported. So maybe the best strategy could be to invest the earnings into educational health campaigns and advertising that promotes healthy foods? Including buying out the sponsorships from the Big Food industry at all the sporting  events and school programs!

It’s not a sugar tax in reality, it’s a health tax. Let’s hope the lawyers, public health officials, doctors, educators, parents all get on board with this!

If you or someone you know needs dietary help, feel free to drop me a line on the “contact us” page of this site. I treat patients locally at my practice in Vancouver, B.C. and worldwide via phone or Skype.

Dr Tasnim Adatya

Naturopathic Physician, Menopause Clinician, Acupuncturist, and Health Educator