Canada's health ministers are calling on the federal government to work with them to develop national programs to help lower the excessive amount of sodium Canadians consume each day.
Provincial ministers will ask federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq at a meeting on Friday to collaborate with them to reduce childhood obesity, hypertension and other conditions linked to a diet high in sodium.
At a time when health care costs are consuming a growing share of provincial budgets, governments are beginning to focus on promoting healthier lifestyles so that Canadians do not have to make as many visits to doctors and hospitals.
"We realize we can talk a lot about delivery of service," Saskatchewan Health Minister Don McMorris said in an interview. "But part of the issue is to try and have our populations healthier so we don't have to deliver as much service."
Health ministers adopted a report on Thursday that focuses on curbing the marketing of processed foods, increasing the availability of healthy foods and reducing the amount of sodium manufacturers are allowed to add to products.
The provinces need the federal government on board because it is responsible for regulating sodium levels in processed and packaged foods, such as bread, soup, sauces and salad dressings. All regions, with the exception of Quebec, are pushing for a Canada-wide strategy.
Ottawa has come under criticism from health experts for dragging its feet on tackling sodium consumption. In 2010, a federally appointed task force made several key recommendations for national sodium reduction, including a goal of lowering average daily intake by about one-third by 2016.
The federal government did not endorse those targets. It disbanded the task force earlier this year and gave responsibility for the sodium file to a new group that several experts said had too many ties to the food industry. In the absence of mandated targets, the average Canadian consumes about 3,400 milligrams of sodium a day, well above the 2,300 milligrams that experts say is safe before the risk of health problems start to arise.
The two-day meeting in Halifax kicks off high-stakes discussions that will lead to a new health funding deal between Ottawa and the provinces. Efforts to identify priorities began at the meeting, but health ministers are leaving the heavy lifting on negotiating a new financial deal with Ottawa to the premiers, who meet in January.
Everyone at the meeting agrees there is a need for predictable, sustainable funding, Maureen MacDonald, the Nova Scotia Health Minister and host of the meeting, said during a conference call.
"We would like to obviously see an unlimited pot of money, but at this stage, what we are collectively committed to is having stable continuing funding for our health care system," she said.
The current agreement on the Canada Health Transfer, which funnels billions into provincial coffers each year, expires in 2014. Today, Ottawa provides about 20 per cent of the provinces' health-care funding, well below the 50 per cent level when the program was initially set up, Quebec Health Minister Yves Bolduc said during the conference call.
"So we feel they have become disengaged progressively over the years," he said.