Martyn Brown: A tax all Canadians should swallow

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      Got your Red Bull ready? You’re probably going to need it if you plan to endure this Wednesday’s federal budget snoozefest.

      It is rarely how government plans to spend our tax dollars that is most interesting about any budget. Rather, it is how our wallets will be affected that will drive some of us to tune in for Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s speech.

      Call it morbid curiosity. Or 45 minutes from our lives that we will never get back.

      "Nothing is certain in this life, except death and taxes," the old idiom goes. After eons of budgets, we still haven’t learned that the two might go together in a more positive way.

      For years now, health experts having been trying to convince us to embrace tax shifts that might help counter the certainty of premature death from obesity-related illnesses.

      Chances of that happening on Wednesday are very slim indeed. Because as that other truism maintains, "we like to have our cake and eat it too." Ditto for our sugar-sweetened beverages, our high-fat, high-salt snacks, and our other favourite junk foods.

      Any tax that would raise the price of those things that are increasing our public health cost burden would not be politically popular, to put it mildly.

      The fact that they are also killing us is beside the point: we just hate taxes and would rather not have to pay more for anything we want from government, including better health care or real leadership to drive better health outcomes.

      Last August, we learned that the Trudeau government was considering imposing taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) in its first budget. That revelation was contained in a partially redacted, January 29 "secret" briefing note prepared for Morneau.

      We don’t know why the idea was rejected in last year’s budget, though you can bet that politics had everything to do with it.

      Too bad. It’s a measure that is long overdue.

      Obesity, which can result from glugging too many bottles of sweetened soda pop, can lead to Type 2 diabetes and premature death.

      Death toll will rise if SSB consumption isn't curtailed

      There is a mountain of evidence that SSB taxes can play a vital role in leading to healthier diets that reduce sugar consumption and its related negative health impacts.

      It is a policy tool that the World Health Organization has studied and recommended, as one of several strategies to combat noncommunicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, chronic respiratory disease and especially diabetes.

      Just last week, a new study was released. It was commissioned by the Canadian Cancer Society, the Canadian Diabetes Association, the Childhood Obesity Foundation, the Chronic Disease Prevention Alliance of Canada, and the Heart & Stroke Foundation.

      That study was conducted by researchers from the University of Waterloo. Its summary highlights alone should be enough to give us all pause to think.

      They suggest that over the next 25 years, sugary drink consumption will be responsible for an additional 63,321 deaths and more than $50 billion in additional direct health care costs.

      Death and taxes. Two inevitable outcomes we sometimes invite upon ourselves because we are too shortsighted to help governments help us to change our own bad behaviours. Sometimes we just substitute one unhealthy vice for another.

      While the consumption of soft drinks, fruit drinks and 100 per cent fruit juice declined from 2004 to 2015, the reverse was true of other sugary drinks. The consumption of energy drinks grew by 638 percent. Sweetened coffees went up by 579 percent. Flavoured water soared by 527 percent. And drinkable yogurt consumption rose by 283 percent.

      Don’t think that’s alarming? Think again.

      The researchers found that over the next 25 years, sugary drinks alone will also result in more than one million Canadians being overweight and more than three million becoming obese. They will cause almost one million cases of type 2 diabetes, 300,000 cases of ischemic heart disease, 100,000 cases of cancer, and almost 40,000 strokes.

      By the same token, as the Heart & Stroke Foundation's news release explained, the study also found that a 20 percent excise levy on the manufacturers of sugary drinks would result in more than 13,000 lives saved over the next 25 years.

      It would prevent:

      * more than 600,000 cases of obesity and almost 100,000 cases of overweight among Canadian adults;

      * up to 200,000 cases of type 2 diabetes;

      * more than 60,000 cases of ischemic heart disease;

      * more than 20,000 cases of cancer;

      * and more than 8,000 strokes.

      A 20 percent levy would also generate $1.7 billion a year in revenue that would contribute an extra $43.6 billion in total over the next 25 years for government to invest in health care. It would also save us $11.5 billion in health costs. That ain’t chump change.

      It’s not as if we haven’t known this stuff for a long time.

      Last March, a Senate committee made several recommendations to combat the problem of obesity in Canada. It urged the Trudeau government to consider a tax on sugary drinks, to implement effective tax levers to encourage healthy lifestyles, and to ban the advertising of food and beverages to children.

      It might as well have been talking to a wall. The government’s silence was deafening.

      Vending machine companies can be expected to oppose a tax on anything that affects their bottom line.

      B.C. can act unilaterally

      What about in British Columbia?

      Way back in 2006, an all-party committee of the legislature recommended eliminating the provincial sales exemptions on soft drinks, candies, and confections. And also, on all unhealthy foods and beverages meeting the definitions of "not recommended" under the Guidelines for Food and Beverage Sales in B.C. Schools.

      Those recommendations were aimed at supplementing the Campbell government’s ActNow healthy eating program and its move to ban the sale of junk food in B.C. schools and in other public facilities.

      Not on your life, the politicians predictably responded.

      Which makes me wonder. There were four NDP MLAs on that committee. Where does that party now stand on its own support for a junk food tax that those members championed over a decade ago?

      I could ask the same of the B.C. Green party.

      Just last year the federal Green party passed a resolution that pledged a "Green government will introduce a tax on sugar-sweetened (including those sweetened with high fructose corn syrup) and artificially sweetened drinks at a high enough level to discourage their consumption."

      The sponsors of that resolution included Green party Leader Elizabeth May and former interim B.C. Green party leader Adam Olsen, who is running for the party in the May 9 provincial election, in a riding with the same geographic area that May represents.

      What is Andrew Weaver’s position on that federal Green party policy and on the referenced B.C. legislative committee’s recommendation for a junk food tax?

      I mean, it’s not as if Canada or British Columbia would be breaking new ground by taxing sugary drinks or other junk foods.

      Next year the United Kingdom and Ireland will be introducing such a tax to help combat obesity and related illnesses, and equally, to raise much-needed revenue for their health care systems.

      Mexico, Hungary, France, Norway, South Africa, India, and other countries have all acted to make that tax shift; a shift that taxes something undesirable to help encourage healthier behaviours while also helping to reduce even greater unwanted tax pressures.

      Several cities and states in the United States have also acted on this front that Canada and British Columbia has so far refused to tackle.

      Sure, you’ll hear about Denmark, which repealed its fat tax in 2013. But as the World Health Organization found, "Weaknesses in design, the lack of a coordinated voice from public health organizations and a lack of public documentation of the aggregated effects on health and the overall effects on the economy, gave opponents of the tax–for example, the food industry and trade organizations–free play to create negative publicity and to initiate EU jurisdictional actions against it."

      The food and beverage industry does a great job of protecting its interests by lobbying politicians and funding research efforts aimed at discrediting the health organizations’ studies and scientific basis.

      Whatever. I trust the latter’s conclusions and WHO's word a whole lot more than what spills out of the for-profit boardrooms in defence of the junk food industry.

      The United Kingdom is using the tax system to curb consumption of unhealthy products.

      Taxes can cause consumers to think twice

      No one likes taxes. I sure don’t. But I’d rather have the government tax costs I can control, by making smarter health choices, than tax things I can’t control, because the politicians are too gutless to do what is right. And I’d rather not pay for higher health costs that we could all avoid by putting the tax onus on individuals to take more responsibility for their own health decisions.

      Higher taxes on alcohol, tobacco, and carbon have proven to be effective in changing consumer behaviours. If nothing else, they have raised tons of money for government that not only funds crucial public services, but that also reduces upward pressure on other taxes. Dedicated taxes that produce earmarked revenues for health service enhancement only makes sense.

      If the federal government won’t bring in a national tax on sugary drinks or other junk foods, it could try another tack. It could provide additional health transfer payments to provinces that take on that responsibility, to compound the benefits their citizens would derive from that tax shift. That might make that needed tax shift more politically palatable.

      Don’t agree? Bully for you.

      Sit back, pop your pop, and know that we won’t likely see any moves in that direction anytime soon in Canada. As always, it’s politics and public perception that matter most. And right now, the antitax crowd rules supreme.

      As this issue proves, some ideas are just too sensible for self-interested "common sense" that views unhealthy indulgence as a free right of all Canadians.

      Martyn Brown was former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell’s long-serving chief of staff, the top strategic advisor to three provincial party leaders, and a former deputy minister of tourism, trade, and investment in British Columbia. He is the author of the ebook Towards a New Government in British ColumbiaContact Brown at