The skinny on sugar: Taxing soft drinks won't reduce obesity, study finds
A tax on soft drinks to get people to cut back on sugar isn’t going to work, according to a new study.
While the Montreal and Quebec governments have both floated the idea, Montreal’s Economic Institute points to something called the “sugar paradox,” saying taxing sugar won’t solve the problem of obesity.
“When you start taxing a product, people change their behaviour, and they might replace this sugar by something else that's not necessarily better for their health,” explained Mathieu Bedard of the MEI.
The institute points out in its study that obesity is up in Quebec and the rest of Canada, as well as the United States, the U.K. and Australia, among other places, but sugar consumption in all of those places is down.
“The consumption of sugar, in general, has also fallen over the past ten years, after having risen almost constantly since the early 1990s. Despite this, the obesity ‘epidemic’ has maintained its momentum, and today affects nearly a third of the country’s population,” the MEI said in its report.
The real problem, it says, isn't soft drinks themselves but overall calorie intake.
“Numerous clinical studies have demonstrated that there is nothing special about sugar in itself that would slow down or cancel out weight loss while dieting. As nutritional science explains, it is the overconsumption of calories, whatever their origin, that leads to weight gain, whether one eats whole foods, processed foods, or sugary drinks,” the study claims.
A sugar tax might make paying the grocery bill more challenging for some families, Bedard added.
“For some households, it might make it difficult to feed themselves when you start adding taxes on top of taxes,” he said.
Nutritionist Danielle Levy agrees with some of what the institute had to say but added that not all calories are created equal.
“If you have 500 calories from fresh veggies and some lentils and some nuts, for example, the science shows people don't actually develop obesity eating a whole food diet,” she explained.
Still, Levy said villainizing one particular food with a tax isn't the answer.
“From my perspective as a nutrition practitioner, people are more successful when they are shown alternatives,” she said.
Education is also important. English Montreal School Board dietician Giuliana di Quinzio makes regular trips to schools to educate students on healthy eating. She's seen a difference through classroom visits.
“What we found is that they do want to be healthy, it's just giving them the tools to make healthier choices,” she said.
Ultimately, the MEI claims that education and a healthy lifestyle is more important than a tax on sugars alone.
“If we were to try to modify Quebecers’ food-related behaviours using taxes, it would be impossible to know with certainty what they would shift their consumption to. Simplistic solutions like taxing sugary drinks do not address more basic problems, like adequate education about good nutrition and a healthy lifestyle, for which a tax is no substitute,” the study read.