A new Senate report on Canada's obesity crisis is calling for a tax on sugary drinks, a ban on food and drink advertising aimed at children and government subsidies for healthy food.

The report titled Obesity in Canada makes 21 recommendations in total for dealing with Canada's obesity crisis, including a call for the federal government to rewrite Canada's food guide without any input from the food and beverage industries.

But almost as soon as the Senate's prescription for a healthier Canada hit the internet there were objections to the notion of a sugar tax.

"The only thing a sugar tax will make thinner are Canadians' wallets," said Aaron Wudrick, the federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, in a release. "Good intentions do not always translate into good policy, and the record of these types of taxes in other jurisdiction leaves much to be desired."

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The Canadian Beverage Association was also quick to reject the recommendation from the Senate saying that taxing drinks, without taxing the sugar in other foods, would not support the goal of a healthier public.

CBC Forum on obesity in Canada

"We are fighting a losing battle in our society right now. As a teacher I can educate until I'm blue in the face, but as long as pop and junk food is half the price of healthy options it doesn't matter."  — a comment from PE Teacher on the CBC Forum chat on obesity in Canada. Read the full discussion here.

"This has been tried in other jurisdictions and it has failed. It didn't reduce obesity. It increased the price of groceries, and resulted in job losses in the food and beverage sector," said Jim Goetz, president of the Canadian Beverage Association, in a release.

Critics cite a short-lived tax on fatty foods in Denmark as one example of why taxation is not the solution to the obesity crisis. They say the Danish tax was abandoned after a little over a year because it contributed to increased cross-border shopping to Germany, boosted food costs and job losses.

The Senate report, however, says the Danish tax did have "an impact from a health perspective," but was scrapped anyway because of a change in government coupled with strong opposition from the food industry.

Obesity in Canada

The report paints a pretty grim picture of Canadians. It ranks Canada as fifth in the world when it comes to the number of obese adults (the U.S. is number 1). It also notes that obesity has doubled in adults (two thirds are overweight or obese) and tripled in children since 1980.

The report also says only 15 per cent of adult Canadians are getting the 150 minutes of activity a week they need to stay fit and that all of the unhealthy living is costing the health-care system and economy between $4.6 and $7.1 billion a year in direct costs and loss of productivity.

Parenting Obesity Landscape

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation and the Canadian Beverage Association are opposed to a tax on sugary drinks advocated by a Senate committee. (Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press)

Outside of the sugar tax, filling the Senate's prescription to address the issue will require a regime of aggressive treatment from the federal government.

One therapy involves studying Quebec's prohibition on advertising food to children and using the experience in that province as the basis for a national ban on marketing food and beverages to children.

Tax cuts on healthy food?

Another remedy calls for the federal government to conduct a study on possible fiscal therapies and submit its findings to the committee by December of this year.  

The Senate committee on social affairs, science and technology also wants the federal government to examine whether subsidies or tax cuts that target healthy foods would make a difference.

The committee is also prescribing an "immediate" revision to Canada's food guide that cuts out any input from industry, while relying on consultation from experts in nutrition, medicine, metabolism, biochemistry and biology.

Other recommendations include:

  • Create a national campaign to combat obesity.
  • Assess the part of the tax credit system that targets children's activity to better help those from poor and First Nations communities.
  • Ban the use of partially hydrogenated oils to cut trans fat content in food.
  • Rethink how carbohydrates are calculated, and what constitutes serving size and daily intake recommendations.
  • Study whether sugar and starch should be classified as carbohydrates.
  • Revisit how food companies make nutrition claims on labels.
  • Have the minister of health study food labelling in other countries to see what works best and report back to the committee.
  • Introduce nutrition labelling on menus.
  • Increase funding to ParticipACTION so it can be a national voice for healthy living.
  • Increase funding to programs that have shown success in promoting physical health.
  • Make the promotion of an active lifestyle central to health-care provision in Canada, including having doctors prescribe exercise.
  • Use money from the New Building Canada fund to build fitness infrastructure.
  • Have Health Canada lead a public awareness campaign to promote healthy eating and active lifestyles.

Read the full Senate report here:

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