A multi-pronged strategy was needed to significantly reduce smoking rates across Ontario over the last few decades.

Obesity is a current and worsening public health threat. 

The obesity epidemic may also need to be attacked from many angles, but may be harder to effectively fight than smoking.

Healthydebate.ca took to the street in December 2010 to gather some opinions from about whether taxing sugary soft drinks the way that tobacco is taxed, could help fight obesity. Check out what people had to say in the below video.

The obesity epidemic

Obesity rates have risen astronomically over the past 20 years, with nearly 1 in every 2 Canadian adults at increased health risk due to excess weight. Some experts think that the obesity epidemic may soon lead to a decrease in life expectancy, and by increasing the frequency of diabetes and other chronic diseases, it is starting to threaten the sustainability of our health care system.

The battle against tobacco

Some wonder whether there are lessons that can be learned from the battle against smoking. Although the battle against tobacco has not yet been won, the reduction in smoking rates has been seen as one of the most important public health achievements of the past century.

The attack against smoking has been waged in the media, convenience stores, physicians’ offices and courtrooms. Higher prices and taxes on cigarettes have discouraged some people from buying cigarettes and have provided governments with funds to fight tobacco, including banning smoking in public spaces, education campaigns targeting youth, and the use of graphic images on cigarette packages.

Can the same approach be used in the fight against obesity?

Obesity and smoking: similar, but different

Dr. Prabhat Jha, a leading authority on tobacco control, says that the epidemics of obesity and smoking are very different, and uses the example of childhood/teen obesity and smoking to illustrate his point. Jha says that the tobacco industry is the one source where teens get cigarettes, and if the prices go up, teens will respond because they are easily influenced by high costs. In obesity, the situation is not so simple. The causes of obesity – cheap snack foods, more expensive fresh produce, suburban sprawl and drops in physical activity – are associated with social, economic and environmental factors. As well, while we can all live without smoking, none of us can live without eating. Thus, the fight against obesity is very complex and cannot be targeted by a single approach.

One approach: taxing sugary drinks

However, in spite of complexity of obesity, some policy makers are trying to figure out how to limit or control access to certain products that are known to cause obesity, and add little nutritional value. Weight gain and obesity are associated with sugar sweetened drinks, including pop and juices, which provide little nutritional value and excess calories.

Similar to anti-smoking efforts that have focused on teenagers, taxing sugar sweetened drinks would impact those who are the most price sensitive – children and teenagers – and those are at risk of gaining the most weight from sugary drinks.  These drinks account for about 15% of calories that the average North American teen consumes, so many think that increasing their cost will have an impact.

Policy makers have suggested that sugary drinks could be taxed at 1 cent per ounce, so about 20 cents for a large bottle of pop.

Similar to tobacco, policy makers could direct money made from a tax on sugary drinks towards funding programs and policies to encourage healthy eating, such as a healthy school lunch program, education about caloric literacy and cooking classes in schools, or subsidies on fruits and vegetables. Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, an expert in weight management, estimates that a tax on sugary beverages could generate up to $1.5 billion a year in Canada.

However, to date politicians have been unwilling to tax these products, perhaps because of the influence of the powerful food and beverage industries. It was reported in December 2010 that the food and beverage manufacturing industry has eclipsed the automotive manufacturing industry in terms of sales and workers. Processed foods and beverages have sales of over $10 billion per year in Canada. Interestingly, when New York State wanted to introduce an 18% sales tax on soda, PepsiCo threatened to move its corporate headquarters out of New York City.  Other people believe that governments shouldn’t interfere in people’s choices, whether they are healthy or not.

Should the government tax sugary beverages?

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Would taxing sugary beverages make a difference on obesity rates?

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