• Would you support a tax that reduced your risk of early death, blindness, amputation, stroke, heart attack and kidney failure?
We know that excessive consumption of calories contributes to obesity, which is a major risk factor for type 2 diabetes. Sugar-sweetened beverages, such as non-diet pop, sports drinks, energy drinks, fruit-flavoured drinks, sweetened iced teas and blended coffee drinks, can be a significant source of such excess calories.
The new twist is that recent studies show that regular consumption of these beverages (one or more servings per day) increases the risk for diabetes, regardless of weight. So even at a healthy weight, if you obtain a substantial portion of your calories from sugar-sweetened beverages, you have a 20 percent higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes compared to others of the same weight whose calories come from other sources.
Why is this a problem? Today, the average Canadian drinks about 100 litres of sugary beverages each year. That’s almost a serving a day and that serving usually contains at least 10 teaspoons of sugar.
A growing collection of studies shows that a tax on these beverages decreases consumption. Mexico, France, Hungary and Finland have successfully implemented such taxes. In Mexico, a 10 percent tax on drinks containing added sugar was introduced in 2014. In the first year, there was a six percent decline in consumption. But the decrease actually accelerated over the course of the year. By December 2014, the year-over-year reduction for that month reached 12 percent, with the greatest decline seen in poorer communities. This matters to us in Canada because those with lower incomes have the highest rates of diabetes.
These facts have led the Canadian Diabetes Association (CDA) to call on governments to introduce a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. Type 2 diabetes is a national health crisis; a new case is diagnosed every three minutes. Today, 3.4 million Canadians are diagnosed with diabetes, a figure that has doubled in the last 12 years. The personal health burden is tragic; diabetes can lead to a reduction of five to 15 years in life span and contributes to 30 percent of strokes, 40 percent of heart attacks and 50 percent of kidney failure requiring dialysis.
Sugary beverages are not the only cause of the diabetes epidemic. Our population is aging, overweight and sedentary, just some of the factors that raise the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Many people carry genetic risks that cause diabetes, regardless of their lifestyle. Nevertheless, it is urgent to do whatever we can, starting now. While a single tax on a single item is not the magical solution to the diabetes situation in Canada, it will help make the healthy choice the easy, cheaper choice. Any tax should be one part of a larger effort that includes public education, transparent nutrition labelling and stricter regulations on advertising to children.
The recent experience of different countries shows that supporting healthy choices through directed taxes does decrease consumption of unhealthy products and improve our health. An example close to home is Canada’s experience around tobacco use. Lung cancer rates have been declining since the 1980s. Changes that started 20 years earlier – changing package labels, increasing education in schools, higher taxes, restrictions on advertising and other approaches – all contributed to dramatically decreasing the number of smokers in Canada and the sickness tobacco causes. But it took time to gain momentum. That’s why it’s important to start making changes now if we want to bend the diabetes impact curve.
The CDA hopes that our governments show their commitment to the health of Canadians not only by funding treatments for illnesses, but also by using the tax system to promote health.
Rick Blickstead is the president and CEO of the Canadian Diabetes Association, www.diabetes.ca