According to the Canadian Medical Association (CMA), winning the battle against childhood obesity in Canada could be as easy as levying a tax on junk foods like potato chips, chocolate bars and soft drink.
CMA President Ruth Collins-Nakai said Canada has the second-highest rate of pre-school obesity in the world, after China.
“Healthy choices should be cheaper and more readily available,” she said after a speech last Wednesday to the Canadian Club in Winnipeg. “The corollary is that you make unhealthy choices less available and one way to do that is to tax them. Certainly it works for cigarettes. We know it works for young people for cigarettes.”
Her comments go beyond a resolution passed at the CMA’s last general meeting, which called on governments to ban junk food sales at all schools and universities in Canada. Statistics Canada reports that 8 per cent of children and 23 per cent of adults were obese in 2004. Collins-Nakai said child health is a “national disgrace” that has fallen off the radar.
There’s a huge debate about whether consumers should fork out dough for what some are calling a “fat” or “lard” tax. According to many health workers, the crust of that argument is that a lot of fast foods are actually fatty foods that can lead to obesity. They argue that being overweight or obese can cause all kinds of health problems from diabetes to heart disease, and increasingly these adult symptoms are occurring in children at alarming rates.
The debate on campus is whether the proposed tax on junk food will affect cash strapped students.
“Give me a break. Any increase these days will affect students. Sometimes all I can afford is a bag of chips and a Pepsi,” said Collin Long.
The 22-year-old Concordia student said he survives on junk food because of its low cost.
“I’d love to eat organic every day,” he said. “But that is just not the reality. A tax on junk food won’t change how I eat.”
It’s not just those quick off the shelf items that may be taxed. According to a 2004 Health Canada report, junk food includes such food items as pizza, french fries and hot dogs, cheap fast foods popular among students.
Down at Al Taib on Guy Street, a popular hang-out and supply of fast and affordable foods, students line up to gobble dollar-a-pop pizza and chug back Cokes from 10 a.m. to closing time at midnight.
“It’s fast and affordable,” said 26-year-old student Wendy Kelly, who is still waiting on a promised bursary from the Quebec government. As far as a “lard tax” goes, Kelly just shrugs it off.
“I am used to having no money and finding ways to eat cheap. If that means eating less than healthy choices, so be it.”
Winnipeg’s NDP MP Pat Martin, who is pushing for an all-out ban on trans fats, said the proposed fat tax may not have the desired effect.
“The junk food industry is poisoning a generation, and it calls for radical measures,” Martin said. “The seductive power of advertising that targets young people and others who don’t make the right choices in their diet is more to blame. I’m not sure that this type of fat tax would change that or alleviate that problem.”
Meanwhile Long just dismisses the idea, confirming that students will find ways to make ends meet.
“I’ll just go down to the dollar store where chips and soft drinks are often sold as two for one.”