ANDREA GUNN OTTAWA BUREAU
Soda pop as an election issue? It might sound a little far-fetched, but that’s exactly what the Canadian Diabetes Association is trying to accomplish with a campaign aimed at encouraging a federal sales tax on sugary drinks.
Using the election as an opportunity to raise issues relating to diabetes, the association, through chief scientific adviser Dr. Janet Hux, has been engaging the public, political parties and media in the hope of driving policy change.
The cornerstone of its campaign is a recommendation that the government charge a specific tax on all sugary drinks like it does with unhealthy choices like cigarettes and alcohol.
Hux said the number of Canadians living with diabetes has doubled in 12 years, with a new person being diagnosed every three minutes, making it one of the biggest health challenges of the 21st century.
“If you went to a downtown hospital here in Halifax, diabetes would be the cause for 30 per cent of the strokes, 40 per cent of heart attacks, half of the kidney failure requiring dialysis and 70 per cent of amputations. This disease has a huge toll on people affected by it,” Hux told The Chronicle Herald on Thursday.
According to association statistics, the number of people living with diabetes in Nova Scotia is estimated at more than 171,000 — about 20 per cent of the population — and it costs the health-care system about $439 million per year.
But why specifically target sugary drinks and not other sugar-, fat- or carbohydrate-laden foods? The reason goes beyond the well-known connection between obesity and Type 2 diabetes. Hux said recent studies show a direct link between the consumption of sugary drinks and the likelihood of developing the disease.
“If you took two people the same weight, even a healthy weight, and one of them got a substantial portion of their calories from sugary drinks, her risk of diabetes would be higher even though she’s a healthy weight. This is a class of food products that carry a unique risk and, in most cases, offer no nutritional benefit.”
Hux said people in the high-use consumption category — those who drink one or two cans of pop per day — are 20 per cent more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes than those who consume a low amount or none at all, regardless of weight or other risk factors.
“The primary purpose for the tax is to make the healthy choice the easy choice by giving a price signal that this particular choice is unhealthy,” Hux said.
An added benefit would be that revenue generated by the tax could be invested in prevention and treatment programs, she said.
According to Hux, taxes on sugary beverages have been implemented in France, Hungary, Finland and Mexico, and have been effective in reducing consumption.
But in order to reduce the prevalence of diabetes in Canada, Hux said, public education, changes to labelling and packaging, and ad restrictions would be required.
While no parties have agreed to a tax on sugary drinks yet, Hux said she’s not discouraged.
“We see this as an opportunity to start the conversation. (We would be) really pleased to work with the new government after the election to develop the suite of polices that are going to be needed.”
As part of its election advocacy, the diabetes association is also pressing parties to look at a national Pharmacare strategy, as well as extending the disability tax credit to include those with Type 1 diabetes.