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An obese boy watches children at a public bath in Essen, western Germany on July 3, 2009. Statistics Canada says almost a third of Canadian children are either overweight or obese. (Frank Augstein/AP)
An obese boy watches children at a public bath in Essen, western Germany on July 3, 2009. Statistics Canada says almost a third of Canadian children are either overweight or obese. (Frank Augstein/AP)

Sugary foods

A tax on sugary drinks? There’s no magic bullet for reducing obesity Add to ...

Canadian governments have proved remarkably ineffective at preventing obesity and promoting the conditions for healthier eating. By almost any measure, the nation at large has been getting fatter, more sedentary and sicker as a result.

There is a huge financial cost to obesity, paid by taxpayers who fund ballooning health-care expenditures that can be directly linked to poor diet and an inactive lifestyle. And there’s personal damage as well – not just in compromised long-term health but in a diminishing of everyday happiness and independence.

Governments have a strong interest in reducing health-care costs, and even in raising national happiness. But their track records don’t inspire trust – obesity has doubled among adults and tripled among children since 1980, all while health officials have been lecturing Canadians (not always correctly) on how to eat better.

Is there any reason to think a new report out of Ottawa will make a difference in turning this nutritional noise into beneficial change? What’s most encouraging about the recommendations from the Senate’s Social Affairs, Science and Technology Committee is that they are deliberately wide-ranging. There is no magic bullet of the kind beloved by diet gurus – an approach now recognized as ineffective through past governments’ demonizing of saturated fat, which led to the increased consumption of low-fat, high-carbohydrate processed foods directly associated with the modern obesity trend.

The report’s recommendations do include some eye-catching quick fixes – among them, a prohibition on advertising foods and drinks to children (based on an existing Quebec initiative) and a rewriting of Canada’s Food Guide in “evidence-based” terms (i.e. decreasing the self-serving influence of the food and agricultural industries) to minimize processed foods.

And then there’s the recommendation for a tax on sugar-sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages.

Yes, sweet drinks can be a factor in obesity – which is an argument in principle for discouraging excessive consumption. But is a tax on “unhealthy” food really the best way to do that? Should sugary drinks be taxed but not chocolate bars? Candy but not cake? Honey? Would the tax be calibrated based on sugar content? Calories? Maybe this isn’t such a wise idea.

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