A Senate committee is calling for a national campaign to combat obesity, including a possible new tax on sugar-sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, and a ban on food advertising that targets children.
The recommendations are made in a new report on the "alarming obesity rates in Canada," released Tuesday by the Senate's standing committee on social affairs, science and technology. Committee chair Kelvin Ogilvie, a Conservative, and deputy chair Art Eggleton, a Liberal, released the report at a news conference in Ottawa on Tuesday.
"We can't sugar-coat it any longer. There is an obesity crisis in Canada and sugar is a big part of that problem. We must act," Mr. Ogilvie said.
The report recommends that the federal government consider a so-called sugar tax, a proposal welcomed by the Canadian Diabetes Association.
"We need that tax because of the direct link between sugary drinks and the risk of Type 2 diabetes," Jan Hux, the association's chief science officer, told The Globe and Mail. "They can be removed from the diet in most cases with no loss of nutrition."
A number of jurisdictions have brought in a sugar tax or similar ban, to varying degrees of success. In Mexico, a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages succeeded in bringing down sales by 12 per cent, but a recent study by the British Medical Journal estimates that only 4.7 calories were removed from an average diet of 3,025 calories a day as a result of the measure.
In 2012, then-New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg banned the sale of jumbo sugary beverages. The ban was eventually rejected by the state's highest court in 2014, after beverage companies sued the city.
The Canadian Taxpayers Federation urged the federal government to reject calls for a sugar tax.
"The only thing a sugar tax will make thinner are Canadians' wallets," Aaron Wudrick, the organization's federal director, said in a statement Tuesday. "Good intentions do not always translate into good policy, and the record of these types of taxes in other jurisdictions leaves much to be desired."
The Canadian Beverage Association said the tax unfairly targets the industry, which employs 60,000 people across the country.
"Singling out one product line that contributes 5 per cent of Canadians' calories to their diet … is not going to bend the curve on obesity," association president Jim Goetz said.
The report also recommended a ban on food and beverage advertising to children, based on an assessment of the existing model in Quebec.
"Children are inundated with food and beverage marketing," Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada CEO David Sculthorpe said. "At the same time, these messages are drowning out healthy messages that governments and health organizations are trying to communicate."
The study called on Health Minister Jane Philpott to revise the Canada Food Guide with the help of an advisory body, which it argued should not include members of the food or agriculture industries. It also recommended that federal government infrastructure funding encourage an active lifestyle, such as the inclusion of sidewalks in new housing developments.
The report made a number of key findings as well. Since 1980, the number of obese Canadian adults has doubled. Today, two-thirds of Canadian adults and 33 per cent of children are either overweight or obese, according to the findings.
The study also found an obesity problem among the indigenous population, noting that 70 per cent of aboriginal adults and 62.5 per cent of aboriginal children under 11 years old are either overweight or obese. The report calls on the government to improve the Nutrition North food subsidy program, which has been criticized for operational problems, and improve affordability and availability of healthy food options in aboriginal communities.
According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Canada ranks fifth among countries where obesity is prevalent in adults, behind the U.S., Mexico, New Zealand and Australia. The committee found that the estimated direct and indirect health-care costs due to the loss of productivity stemming from Canadians' obesity range from $4.6-billion to $7.1-billion a year.
Mr. Eggleton urged Dr. Philpott to move "as quickly as possible" on the report's recommendations. In a statement, the Health Minister welcomed Tuesday's report, acknowledging the obesity problem.
"I look forward to reviewing all of the recommendations of this report in depth in the coming days and working with my provincial and territorial colleagues and stakeholders across the country as we work to tackle this national obesity issue."