Ottawa

Study linking NAFTA to obesity reminder to read fine print

A study linking an increase in the supply of a common sweetener in Canada to the North American Free Trade Agreement is a reminder that even a small tweak to cross-border trade policy can have a big impact on public health, according to an Ottawa health expert.

Trade deal contained tariff reductions on high-fructose corn syrup, researchers found

After the North American Free Trade Agreement came into effect, tariffs on high-fructose corn syrup from the United States into Canada dropped, and supply in this country grew.

A study linking an increase in the supply of a common sweetener in Canada to the North American Free Trade Agreement is a reminder that even a small tweak to cross-border trade policy can have a big impact on public health, according to an Ottawa health expert.

University of Oxford researchers scouring the accord discovered a series of tariff reductions on high-fructose corn syrup used in soft drinks and other foods, such as jams or yogurt.

As the tariffs on the U.S.sweetener disappeared over a four-year phase-in period ending in 1998, the researchers noted Canadians' exposure to high-fructose corn syrup jumped from 21.2 calories to 62.9 calories per person per day. Countries that didn't have a similar agreement with the U.S. didn't see the same jump.

You can't lay all of what's happened in terms of obesity on a single sweetener product.- Ronald  Labonté, University of Ottawa

The researchers' findings were published last week in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Ronald Labonté, a University of Ottawa professor of epidemiology who wrote an accompanying commentary in the journal, said after the tariffs disappeared, high-frustose corn syrup was about half the price of other sweeteners, making it a cheaper option for food manufacturers.

And while the study can't say for sure Canadians consumed all of the products that now had the sweetener, Labonté said there's enough evidence to suggest it was a contributor to rising obesity rates in the late '80s and early '90s.

"You can't lay all of what's happened in terms of obesity on a single sweetener product," he told Alan Neal on CBC Ottawa's All in a Day. "What you can say is that all of the evidence of that study is that even a very small change in [the tariffs] of a single product line ... could have a small but still detectable effect on our waistlines."

Public health left out of trade deals

Labonté said the study shows that public health needs to be taken into account more when trade deals are negotiated.

Right now public health officials may learn what's on the menu during discussions, but they don't have a seat at the table, said Labonté, the Canada Research Chair in Contemporary Globalization and Health Equity.

"They are commercial trade deals, they are about commercial interests," he said. "When these deals are being hammered out, the regional free trade agreements, they are behind closed doors, and the only people behind those doors are the government trade negotiators.

"So public health has to sit around the margins and await a chance in the corridor to sort of possibly grab someone and ... raise the issue," he said.

Revamping Canada Food Guide

Health Canada is in the middle of public consultations as it revamps the Canada Food Guide, and is considering front-of-package symbols warning consumers about foods that are high in salt, sugar or saturated fat.

Labonté said he didn't believe such a move would get Canada into trouble under NAFTA, but said trade agreements are making it more difficult for countries to regulate food labelling unless the country can show definitive scientific proof — a potentially high bar.

He said whether or not NAFTA "made us fat," it is important to make sure future trade deals don't prevent us from doing something about it.

"The real thing we should be looking at is that there is nothing in a trade agreement that would prevent a government now or in the future from enacting a non-discriminatory public health measure," he said.