March is Nutrition Month, an annual public awareness campaign that has been running in Canada for over 30 years.
This year, Nutrition Month coincides with the recent announcement of B.C. government’s 2020 budget, which revealed the introduction of a 7% provincial sales tax (PST) on all carbonated drinks that contain sugar or sweeteners (referred to here as SSBs).
This new PST, expected to be enforced in July, aims to help address the health and economic costs of SSBs. As discussed in the provincial government’s Budget 2020 speech (February 18, 2020), it has been shown that teenagers aged 14-18 are the biggest consumers of sweetened drinks. The government introduced this tax in an effort to help keep young people healthy while generating extra funds to support health care services.
At CHÉOS, our scientists have expertise across a multitude of topics, including nutrition. Dr. Annalijn Conklin conducts research examining the broader social-level factors that influence nutrition-related behaviours, with a strong policy interest in better designing and evaluating interventions to prevent and manage chronic conditions.
Prior to joining CHÉOS, Dr. Conklin conducted research on nutrition in the UK, often analyzing the relationship between socioeconomic factors and dietary behaviour. Following the introduction of sugar tax in the UK in 2018, she wrote an editorial on the UK’s sugar reduction program, which concluded that substantial benefits are likely, but only if sugar reduction targets are met.
We spoke to Dr. Conklin to gather her thoughts on the 2020 introduction of PST on SSBs in B.C.
“From a public health point of view, it is important to control sugar intake across the lifespan to prevent the development of obesity and other diet-related chronic diseases,” explains Dr. Conklin. “Research has shown a greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes among people who drink one or two cans of sugary drinks daily compared to people who rarely consume them. There are also important economic reasons to control sugar intake given the very high costs (direct and indirect) of diet-related chronic diseases.”
So could the 7% additional cost have a real impact on the health and economy of B.C.?
“I think the SSB tax has the potential to contribute to reducing diet-related chronic diseases in the long term, but the tax needs to be part of comprehensive set of preventive actions across multiple policy sectors.” Dr. Conklin continues, “Given the broader Canadian context of policy approaches focused on food labeling and limiting marketing to children, the SSB tax in B.C. could be seen as a bold move that is in line with a global trend of using fiscal measures to address sugar consumption. Many other countries have implemented a much higher level of tax than what is proposed here; it is possible that this lower level may not provide the incentives that will lead to the expected behaviour changes and consequent health impact. Furthermore, the B.C. tax only includes carbonated drinks and evidence has shown that the greatest reductions from sugar tax elsewhere is for non-carbonated drinks. I also think it will be key for the government to implement appropriate education campaigns supporting the new SSB tax, as it has been shown elsewhere that similar taxes have not succeeded when there was a lack of education surrounding them.”
Dr. Conklin also raises questions regarding health equity and the potential varying impact of the SSB tax across different social groups; for example, in Mexico, data show that SSB tax most reduced sugar consumption among low-income consumers and young people. However, as she explains, it is unclear how generalizable these findings are in other contexts: “B.C. has unique geography with many remote communities where access to clean potable water is limited or lacking and access to other drink alternatives (e.g. milk, fruit juice) can cost three times the national average.”
The introduction of the PST on SSBs is very timely with regard to Dr. Conklin’s ongoing research. Her lab is currently studying the relationship between sleep deficits and sugary drinks in B.C. adolescents aged 13-18. Dr. Conklin and her student and colleague Kexin Zhang are excited about this research, as there is currently very limited evidence on this age group and very little attention given to the potential differences between boys and girls. Early findings show that some young people are consuming a large number of sugar drinks on a regular basis and that there may be important sex- and gender-based differences in the relationship between sleep deficits and sugary drink intake.
For more information on Nutrition Month, visit Nutritionmonth2020.ca and follow the hashtags #NutritionMonth and #MoreThanFood on Twitter!