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The Skytrain station and Broadway and Commercial in Vancouver, B.C.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Vancouver-area health officers are endorsing a Yes vote in the regional plebiscite, saying billions of dollars in new transit projects would avert 400 deaths per year in the region as well as help combat obesity and other health problems.

To date, much of the debate over a proposed 0.5-per-cent sales tax to help support $7.5-billion in new transit spending has revolved around economics, planning and the environment.

But on Thursday, two health officers weighed in, arguing that new transit would improve public health.

By 2045, according to a World Health Organization measure called the Health Economic Assessment Tool, there would be 400 fewer deaths per year in the Lower Mainland with increased cycling and transit, said Dr. Victoria Lee, interim chief medical health officer for Fraser Health.

The tool is a modelling system that looks at populations' health and other measures based on kilometres of transit infrastructure.

Dr. Lee made her point in remarks to a boisterous campaign event by the Better Transit and Transportation Coalition – a group of about 90 organizations, including business groups, students, environmentalists and labour arguing for a Yes vote in the looming transit plebiscite in the Lower Mainland.

Voters are being asked, in a mail-in ballot between March 16 and May 29, to endorse the sales tax to help fund a decade-long transit improvement plan that would include a new Vancouver east-west subway, light-rail lines in Surrey, new buses and a new Pattullo Bridge.

Dr. Lee and Dr. Patricia Daly, Vancouver Coastal Health's chief medical health officer, elaborated on the health case for Yes after the rally.

Dr. Daly noted that regional air pollution is linked to 600 deaths per year, so getting cars off the road is important. "Even if you never intend to make use of the improved transit, this plan will improve your health because it's going to improve the air that you breathe," she said.

Dr. Daly also said transit can help most people get the 30 minutes of exercise a day recommended for good health. "People who use transit are much more likely to get to that goal because they're walking. You're walking to the station. You're walking to the bus," she said.

The two health officers said they were acting independently of their organizations with their advocacy – but that other health officers in the region share their view.

Dr. Daly noted that a massive new health survey will be used to campaign for a Yes vote. Both Vancouver-area health authorities have completed a Lower Mainland survey of 36,000 respondents called "My Health, My Community," and are analyzing data.

Among other things, respondents during the year-long survey were to report on their height and weight to allow an assessment of body-mass index and whether respondents are obese.

"Our initial analysis has shown that people who use active transportation – that means they bike, walk or take transit to work – are 36 per cent less likely to report being overweight or obese compared to those who use cars," Dr. Daly said.

She said the results will be released in coming weeks to highlight the health benefits of taking transit. "We have an important message to the public as they are considering the plebiscite: It's not just about the environment or how you get to work. It's actually for your health."

Jordan Bateman, the B.C. director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation who is working on the No side of the debate, said the "scare tactics" of the Yes side have been overblown.

"It is disappointing to see government agencies again spending time and taxpayer money to influence a political process. That's not what people pay taxes for," he said in an e-mail.