Could a Donut Tax Save Lives?

Canadians keep getting heavier, and heavier. Now an editorial just published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal is calling for tough action to deal with obesity.
((AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, file))

Canadians keep getting heavier and heavier. Obesity rates in this country have tripled over the past thirty years. Now an editorial just published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal is calling for tough action to deal with obesity.

The editorial calls for a new approach to tackling the obesity epidemic, proposing the use of tried and tested methods that have been highly successful at curbing rates of tobacco use. The authors say the government should pass laws that - as with tobacco - restrict the sale of foods that are high calorie and nutrient poor. It also says the government should make these foods more expensive to purchase by slapping taxes on them. Call it a donut tax.  This kind of approach might also include age restrictions on certain foods as well as laws banning super-sized portions.

The journal says that the current educational approach -- giving Canadians guidelines on things like how to eat right and warning about the diseases associated with obesity -- has clearly not worked. The editorial says our society is over-endowed with nutritional guidelines and yet far too many of us continue to make the wrong choices. There are plenty of exercise guidelines that most Canadians likewise don't follow. The Global Burden of Disease Study by the World Health Organization says that between 1980 and 2013, rates obesity went up astronomically despite education.   

The editorial says that fundamental problem with the educational approach is that it wrongly assumes that eating right or wrong comes down to a choice and that education can help people to make the right choice. It points out that there is a neurobiological basis behind the human craving for sugary and high-fat foods noting the addictive properties of such foods. It also makes the point that the craving for these foods gave humans a survival advantages at a time when food was scarce and humans who could make every calorie count were more likely to survive.  The editorial bats away the notion of food being a simple choice by asking rhetorically, "Are millions of people really choosing to be overweight?"

Last year, Mexico imposed an 8% tax on junk foods - those high in saturated fat, sugar and salt - and a surtax on one litre bottles of sugary drinks such as Coca Cola.  Mexicans drink an astonishing two hundred litres per year of sugary soft drinks. That's the highest consumption rate on the planet. The money raised is supposed to pay for school health programs and access to drinking water in schools. Mexico has one of the highest rates of obesity in the world - even higher than the US. Last month, Ecuador announced it was going to pass legislation taxing fast food -- particularly from US fast food chains like McDonald's and Burger King.  The pointed reference to US-based companies makes one wonder if the measure is as much a slap at Corporate America as it is an effort to slim down Ecuadorans.  

A 2010 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine looked at more than five thousand young adults.  It concluded that a ten percent tax on sugary soft drinks led to a seven percent reduction in calories from soft drinks, and a ten percent tax on pizza led to a twelve percent reduction in calories from pizza. The authorities concluded that an eighteen percent tax on these foods would results in a two pound weight loss per person per year.  But beware of unintended consequences of taxation. In October 2011, the Danish government introduced a tax on pizza, meat, milk, cheese, butter, oil and processed foods containing more than 2.3% saturated fat, and then a tax on sugary foods. The fat tax was abolished a little over a year later, and the government abandoned the sugar tax idea.  The reason: these measures didn't change the consumption patterns of Danes.  Not only that, the tax led to cross border shopping to countries that didn't post the tax, thus costing Danes jobs. Given Canada's close proximity to the US border, I could see the same problem happening here as well. 


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