Soda pop is the new tobacco. First banned in some school boards, soda pop and other sugar-laden drinks are now being legislated away by different levels of government in the next wave of social engineering programs. But if the state starts by substituting soya milk for Gatorade at your local arena, will it end with them telling you, you can't buy Pizza Pops?
The City of Toronto has decided that - on its own property, at least - choice is something its citizens are better off without. Hoping to prod its children into better eating habits, the city is planning to banish pop and energy drinks from vending machines in its community centres and arenas. Canada is not alone. The battle against sugar is being engaged on many levels throughout the United States. On the international level, the World Health Organization was pushing through a global strategy initiative this week.
While few will argue against targeting obesity, the public-health consensus is at odds with those who would rather make up their own minds. "To what extent do you start regulating the lives of people, so as not to hurt themselves?" asks Jack Mintz, the Palmer Chair in Public Policy at the School of Policy Studies at the University of Calgary.
How far down the road do you want to go? Should we disallow people from going to fast-food places? Jack Mintz, University of Calgary.
Of course, as Dr. Mintz notes, public-health issues come back to hit the public purse when a country has socialized medicine. To his mind, the state should intervene in the health decisions of individuals only when they threaten the well-being of others. Beyond that, he says, attempting to change citizens' behaviour is a questionable endeavour.
"The question is, a) does the state really know that much better? and b) to what extent do we want to encourage individual responsibility, and people thinking for themselves?"
Toronto takes the lead
Nevertheless, the experiment is in play and public-health advocates across the country are watching Toronto's program with great interest.
If all goes according to plan, kids emerging from Toronto's locker rooms will be able to buy only 100-per-cent fruit juice, milk and soy-based products in 2014. (Even bottled water will be history, since the city is about to stop selling it on environmental grounds.) Most striking, though, is the plan's stringency. Toronto's bureaucrats argue that merely offering healthy choices in vending machines isn't enough - because people might make the wrong choice. And the cash-strapped city is prepared to lose tens of thousands of dollars in soft-drink revenues to make sure its good citizens don't.
"We know from our experience with vending machines that people are going to choose the soft drinks, even when you give [healthy]options," says Brenda Patterson, the City Hall manager who is implementing the proposal. "People left to their own devices may continue to make a choice that is less healthy."
Gatorade and Twinkies has been in politicians' crosshairs for decades.
Proposals for "fat taxes" on unhealthy products continue to be mooted at home and abroad, though an outcry forced Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty to retreat from the idea in 2004. Earlier this month, an Ipsos Descarie poll suggested that 77 per cent of Quebeckers would want a special tax on soft drinks, energy drinks and other sugary beverages.
Commissioned by the Coalition québécoise sur la problématique du poids (Coalition Poids), a group promoting weight-problem awareness, the survey found that 70 per cent of people in the rest of Canada also favour such a tax.
Ontario is rolling out new rules that would all but ban the sale of junk food in the province's schools in 2011. British Columbia did away with junk food in school vending machines in 2008. And the Squamish Nation banned ice-cream trucks from three communities on Vancouver's north shore in 2007.
And while the giant PepsiCo brand has pledged to phase pop out of schools by 2012 - globally! - a battle is brewing in Washington, D.C., over a proposed soft-drinks tax in the country's capital.
According to www.just-drinks.com, a coalition set up by the Washington Beverage Association has called on the industry to sign a petition opposing a proposed tax on sugar-sweetened drinks. If passed, the "1-cent-per-ounce" tax will increase prices on juice drinks, flavoured waters, sports drinks and teas.
"What's truly unfortunate is that this tax would be paid by the hard-working families of the district," the coalition said.
"This is social engineering like you've never seen," says Justin Sherwood, president of Refreshments Canada, the industry group that represents Coke and Pepsi.
Mr. Sherwood says that, starting in 2006, Coke and Pepsi voluntarily withdrew pop from elementary schools and replaced its high-school soda selections with "low- and no-calorie" drinks.
In an earlier letter to the city, Mr. Sherwood mused, "If the City feels so compelled to dramatically limit choices of consumers, where do you go next? Ban butter, ice cream, salad dressings, chocolate bars, pizza, cookies, cream and sugar in coffee, as well as doughnuts consumed on City property?"