A Newfoundland and Labrador tax on sugar-sweetened beverages set to start this September could soon be followed by other provinces, including Alberta.
The tax, which will cost sugary-drink consumers an extra 20 cents per litre, is designed to improve Newfoundlanders’ overall health, while also generating funds for government coffers.
Registered dietitian and University of Alberta school of public health professor Kim Raine says she would love to see a similar tax implemented in Alberta, but adds the typically tax-adverse province may hold out longer than others.
“It will be a little bit of a challenge because of the fact that we don’t even have a provincial sales tax,” says Raine.
As someone who has done extensive research into various policy approaches focused on healthier eating, and a member of a research group evaluating the impact this tax will have on Newfoundland and Labrador, Raine says this could have a major impact on the people there.
“Luckily we were able to collect some data before the tax, and then we’ll collect some data after the tax. We’ll use another province in the Atlantic as comparison so that we can see if the tax actually had an impact on consumption,” says Raine.
Research commissioned by the Alberta Policy Coalition for Chronic Disease Prevention, and conducted by the University of Waterloo shows clear economic and health benefits.
The study, completed in 2017, examined how Alberta would look over 25 years if it was to implement a 50 cent-per-litre tax on sugary beverages.
The statistics showed the tax would prevent 1,200 deaths, 21,700 cases of Type 2 diabetes and 2,100 cancer cases.
This study predicts the economic benefits could earn $3.5 billion in tax revenue and produce almost $1.1 billion in health care savings.
David Hammond, a professor in the school of public health sciences at the University of Waterloo, says Canada’s obesity rates are going in the wrong direction — due primarily to Canadians’ sugar intake.
“Diet is very complicated, but the simple part of it is that we consume far too much sugar, and sugary drinks are essentially empty calories,” says Hammond.
Some Canadians might not be aware of the potential harmful effects that are associated with consuming these sugary drinks — something Hammond believes should be widespread knowledge.
“A lot of Canadians aren’t aware of the link between obesity and cancer, for example. Cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, these are really widespread in Canada.”
New implementation in Newfoundland
The tax is a win-win situation for Newfoundland, says Hammond, as revenue is created, while simultaneously helping people switch to healthier eating habits.
“Other countries have done this, like the UK and Mexico, and it works like you’d think. If you raise the prices on sugary drinks, consumers are less likely to purchase them,” says Hammond. “The good news is that [people] seem to substitute with healthy beverages that aren’t taxed, like water for example.”
Although Newfoundland is first in Canada to implement this type of tax, it wasn’t the first to attempt it. The Northwest Territories made a move to create a sugary-beverage tax in 2019 — prompting major soft drink companies to put up a fight.
“A lot of big soda companies flew up to Yellowknife for the hearings on this tax, and basically made a case for not implementing this tax,” says Raine. “They have a lot of highly paid lobbyists who work very hard to block any efforts in this way.”
But, with Newfoundland leading the charge, Raine says it could ultimately make it easier for other provinces to implement something like this in the future.
“Once one jurisdiction does this successfully it becomes easier for other jurisdictions to learn from the lessons. Everybody will be watching Newfoundland and Labrador really carefully to see what happens.”
Should a sugary drink tax go ahead, Raine theorizes the government could use this extra money to directly benefit the overall health of the community.
“If even just a portion of that tax gets earmarked for health promotion, that seems to make a bigger difference,” says Raine. “A portion of that tax could subsidize fruits and vegetables, it could go towards a diabetes prevention program, it could go towards a school food program.”
Ultimately, she believes the health benefits for a potential sugary beverage tax are too great to ignore.
“What’s most important to me is that people have a good quality of life and live a long and healthy life.”