Don't use tobacco taxes to justify pop taxes, says Manitoba prof

A senate report recently recommended Canada consider a tax on sugar-sweetened-beverages. Similar to taxes on tobacco products, so-called "pop taxes" are meant to deter people from making unhealthy choices. But Natalie Riediger says the logic is flawed and ignores important socioeconomic aspects.
Cans of soda are displayed in a case at Kwik Stops Liquor in San Diego, California. (Sam Hodgson/Reuters)

Earlier this year, a Senate report called for a tax on sugary drinks. 

The report makes 21 recommendations in total and paints a pretty grim picture — ranking Canada as fifth in the world when it comes to the number of obese adults (the U.S. is number 1) and noting that since 1980, obesity has doubled in adults and tripled in children. 

Faced with an obesity crisis in Canada, the report employs a favourite tool of government when tasked with changing public behaviour: taxes! 

Similar to tobacco, we're starting to moralize pop. So pop is bad and people who drink pop are bad.- Natalie Riediger

The logic being that you can disincent people to buy pop, and thus take a small step towards battling Canada's obesity crisis. It was the same kind of rationale used in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the federal government increased taxes on tobacco products, 

But Natalie Riediger — an assistant professor at the University of Manitoba — says if you look closely at the data, it shows that not everyone stopped smoking equally. 

Smoking rates declined most with people who are highly educated and earn higher incomes, and those same rates of decline don't hold true for Canadians who earn less and have lower education levels.

We're all still looking for a quick fix.- Natalie Riediger

"Like the tobacco tax, a sugar sweetened beverage tax would likely reduce pop intake among higher socioeconomic populations," she says.

But it would not have the same effect on lower income groups, even though they would be hurt more by the taxes.  

Riediger says taxes cast a moral shadow not only on the product, but the consumers. 

"Similar to tobacco, we're starting to moralize pop. So pop is bad, and people who drink pop are bad." 

Riediger argues if the federal government really wants to tackle a health issue like obesity, it needs to tackle the bigger social problem of food security. 

"We're all still looking at a quick-fix." 


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