Taxing sugary drinks isn’t the right way to end childhood obesity

A Senate Committee recently asked the Canadian government to tax sugary drinks to address childhood obesity. While attempting to fight childhood obesity may be a noble cause, this is not the way to fix the problem. A tax on sugary drinks is the wrong approach when trying to address childhood obesity because it is not proven to work and it suggests that we are not capable of making informed decisions by ourselves.

Proponents of a sugary drink tax suggest the government should intervene in matters of health tax sugary drinks. This would be similar to how the government taxes tobacco. In regards to this tax taking place in Canada, famous chef Jamie Oliver was quoted as saying “It’s about time your government got on this.” The rationale behind this is one that says ‘if you won’t make healthy decisions, we will force you to.’

Fighting childhood obesity can certainly be a noble cause for taxing sugary drinks. At the same time a tax is a method of addressing the problem which assumes Canadians are unable to make informed and positive choices when it comes to their diet. Instead of punishing negative decisions, the government should inspire positive decisions.

Providing financial incentives to eat healthier may have as much of an effect on healthy eating as taxing unhealthy decisions would. The difference is that one assumes Canadians cannot make informed choices, while the other encourages them to do so.

Supporters of taxing sugary drinks may also suggest that it is the only way to fix childhood obesity. Chef Jamie Oliver, who supports the tax, posted a lengthy video to his Facebook page that said, “This will send ripples around the world, as far as how these weak, pathetic governments combat the rise in childhood obesity and diet-related disease.” These supporters suggest that if a government does not tax sugary drink consumption, that it is doing their citizens a disservice.

A tax is most certainly not the only way to fix childhood obesity, much like how taxing tobacco isn’t the only reason some smokers quit. As of 2012, the Canadian government forced all tobacco companies to display warning labels on their products. These labels show the negative health effects behind smoking and encourage healthy living. Attempting something similar to smoking’s warning labels may be the right approach to sugary drinks. At the very least, educating the public’s knowledge on healthy living, more than we presently are, could fix the problem. Addressing the nutritional benefits of healthy living, as opposed to taxing unhealthy living, is most certainly the more positive approach.

Some people may believe that if you have to pay more for pop, you would buy those products less. These supporters see this as being true considering how we are already seeing increases in nearly every food product over the past decade. Supporters of a pop tax suggest that raising the price will put financial strain on Canadians and make them rethink their habits.

Addressing health-related issues through a price increase is not necessarily a proven, guaranteed approach. The Journal, an Irish newspaper, pointed out in an article from October of last year that a tax on cigarettes did nothing to deter smokers from quitting in the long run.

A tax on sugary drinks will not necessarily put enough financial strain on Canadians to successfully eliminate all sugary drink spending in the long run. Cornell University conducted a study in 2012 where one half of a small town was taxed 10 per cent on sugary drinks, while the rest of the town paid regular prices. The tax reduced spending on sugary drinks for the first month, and then the taxed half of the town returned to their regular spending on these products. This study shows the flaws in suggesting that financial strain can force people to rethink unhealthy actions. Given enough time, people will eventually return to their unhealthy ways by finding ways to come up with the money to equal the rise in price.

A tax on sugary drinks assumes that Canadians can’t make positive choices, and is a method that has been proven wrong by credible studies. The issue could be remedied through nutritional education and by reinforcing positive choices instead of punishing negative ones. Some may consider a sugary drink tax noble for tackling the issue of childhood obesity, it is the wrong way to fix the problem. It is one that belittles people instead of motivating them. In the end, we deserve to be able to make choices, for better or worse, out of our own free will and not because a tax forced us to.