Ontario Liberal MPs eye 'soda tax' idea for October election campaign

A "sugar sweetened beverages levy" or what is more commonly known as a soda tax, is included in a list of Ontario caucus priorities obtained by CBC News.

MP backing idea says new revenue would fund school lunch program, fight obesity and save health care dollars

Ontario Liberal MPs are looking to pitch a soda tax to voters in the coming fall election campaign. (Jeff Chiu/The Associated Press)

Ontario Liberal MPs want to pitch voters on a  "sugar sweetened beverages levy" — more commonly known as a soda tax — in the coming federal election campaign, according to a list of caucus platform priorities obtained by CBC News.

While the proposal is ranked 18th out of 19 items on the list, several MPs are pushing hard to include it in the platform for the October election — and to link it to funding for a program to provide healthy lunches to grade school students nationwide.

"I'm certainly fighting for it. I think it is something that could really be an important part of a platform, but we'll see," Toronto Liberal MP Julie Dabrusin told CBC News.

The platform priorities list includes a two-page summary of the soda tax proposal written by Ajax MP Mark Holland, a former senior executive at the Heart and Stroke Foundation.

It says the revenue generated by a new tax could be used to create a national healthy lunch program for Canadian schools.

"The initiative is simple," Holland writes. "Place a levy on SSB (sugar sweetened beverages) to push consumers away from purchasing them, while using those funds raised to fund a national healthy eating strategy that would provide nutritious lunches to schools."

An obesity 'epidemic'

The draft proposal looks at a 20 per cent tax based on an average price for sugary drinks of $2.50 per litre. It also predicts a soda tax could, by reducing obesity, save Canada's health care system a lot of money.

"We have a problem with sugar sweetened beverages being too readily available at too low a price and it is massively contributing to the obesity epidemic," Holland wrote.

"Research from the University of Waterloo reveals that sugary drink consumption is projected to result in over 63,000 deaths and cost the health care system more than $50 billion over the next 25 years."

The document says the tax itself would raise "almost $1.2 billion," while the "25-year total tax revenue is an estimated $29.6 billion."

"The combined health care savings and revenue from a 20 per cent SSB tax over this period would be $36,998,242,299." 

The document includes a two-page summary of the proposal, written by Ajax MP Mark Holland, who is also a former senior executive at the Heart and Stroke Foundation. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Dabrusin said the tax would fulfil two policy goals at once — tackling the obesity problem while ensuring that students "have healthy choices before them."

"It is something that would go back to helping our children," she said. "I don't know who can argue against that."

Deputy Conservative leader Lisa Raitt acknowledged that obesity is a public health problem but said the Liberals are taking the "wrong approach."

"Canadians are overtaxed. They don't want any more taxes," Raitt told CBC News.

"Canadians do not see a taxation as a method by which to reduce or curb their consumption. We're having this discussion on the carbon tax already."

Instead, Raitt said, the government should embrace a more collaborative approach to reducing sugary drink consumption. 

"Work with industry, work with advertising, work with Canadian citizens. Inform them and they'll make good choices," she said.

A 'no-brainer'

Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa and a medical director at the Bariatric Medical Institute, said Canadians should get comfortable with the idea of a soda tax.

"It seems like a no-brainer, and something that we will see happen, whether it is now or whether it's five or ten years from now," he said.

The tax's impact on obesity and public health would depend in part on how long it stays in place, he added.

"What these taxes are meant to do is decrease sugar-sweetened beverage consumption. That's it," he said. "Whether or not that translates into health benefits still will remain to be seen, because these taxes are just short-lived so far."

The Ontario Liberal caucus proposal is similar to initiatives already in place in Mexico, France and some American cities, including Philadelphia.

A recent study of Philadelphia's tax found that consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks dropped by nearly 40 per cent after it was introduced.

However, the study's authors said it is too early to determine whether the change led to better health outcomes.

"What we need to ensure is that people aren't buying unhealthy products as a consequence, and that if in fact we do create a tax, that the monies generated are actually earmarked for health," Freedhoff said.


Katie Simpson is a foreign correspondent with CBC News based in Washington. Prior to joining the team in D.C. she spent six years covering Parliament Hill in Ottawa and nearly a decade covering local and provincial issues in Toronto.