Potential tax on sugar-sweetened drinks met with controversy in Inuvik

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Inuvik residents were not so sweet in their responses to a potential tax on sugar-sweetened drinks during a public consultation hosted at the Mackenzie Hotel by the Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT) on Jan. 28.

At a public meeting in Inuvik on Jan. 28, Marnie Bell, a member of the N.W.T. and Nunavut Public Health Association, said that she doesn’t believe that the potential tax on sugar-sweetened drinks would lead to the health outcome that the GNWT is proposing. Aaron Hemens/NNSL photo
At a public meeting in Inuvik on Jan. 28, Marnie Bell, a member of the NWT and Nunavut Public Health Association, said that she doesn’’t believe that the potential tax on sugar-sweetened drinks would lead to the health outcome that the GNWT is proposing. Aaron Hemens/NNSL photo

“For me, an added tax to the already high costs of living in Inuvik – and the cost of food in Inuvik – is too much,” said Inuvik resident Taylor St. Louis.

The proposed tax rate would cost NWT residents five cents per 100 millilitres for pre-packaged drinks, meaning that residents would be charged an extra dollar when purchasing a 2L bottle of pop.

“A higher tax on something that we already pay a lot of money for is not needed in my view,” St. Louis added.

Lesa Semmler, a fellow Inuvikian, said she also wasn’t in favour of any new taxes, adding that Inuvik’s economy has already seen a major decline over the past five to 10 years.

“I go to the store, I buy groceries, maybe I pick up a case of pop. I don’t look at the price. I pay because I have to eat and I have to buy food,” Semmler said.

She said that her concern is for lower income families that have to look at their bottom dollar every time they go to the grocery store.

“They’re still going to buy pop,” she added.

According to a 2014 Statistics Canada study on obesity, the NWT had the highest obesity rate in Canada, with 33.7 per cent of residents classified as obese.

Kelly Bluck, director of fiscal policy with the GNWT’s Department of Finance, said that the proposed tax on sugary drinks is a means of achieving a health objective.

“We could, as a policy choice, use the tax to reduce sugar consumption,” Bluck said. “Our objective then would be to help reduce obesity-related health problems. It’s about the health.”

However, Marnie Bell, a member of the NWT and Nunavut Public Health Association, said that she doesn’t believe that the potential tax should function as a standalone strategy that will lead to the health outcome that is being proposed.

“We want to live healthy lives, but we don’t believe that just taxing sugar sweetened beverages is going to achieve that,” Bell said. “Being overweight and being obese is more complicated. It’s not as simple as taxing something to try and curtail people’s consumption of beverages.”

She argued that an educational campaign around healthy diets and the health risks that come with high sugar consumption would be more effective than taxation.

“When you look at smoking rates and what’s happened in the North, there has been some reduction for sure… But I’m not so sure that it really happened because of the taxation,” she said. “There were a lot of health promotion initiatives that have gone on over many years that have contributed to people becoming much more aware.”

Jim Goetz, the president of the Canadian Beverage Association, echoed Bell’s statements, saying that what residents need is greater education.

“They need to be encouraged to balance their lifestyle in the things that they eat, drink and do on a daily basis,” Goetz said. “Everything from having treats every now and then – be it with sugar, sodium or fat – but more often balancing their lifestyle with healthy food and beverages and remaining in active lifestyles.”

The GWNT is continuing to seek public engagement from residents on the proposed tax. Similar consultation sessions were held in Tuktoyaktuk on Jan. 28 and in Yellowknife on Jan. 29.

An online survey has been launched so residents can share their input on the tax, and the territorial government is also welcoming written submissions. Feedback will be accepted until Feb. 25, while the online survey will close on March 22.

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Aaron Hemens has been working as the editor of the Inuvik Drum since January 2019. He's responsible for reporting on everything Inuvik, from covering community gatherings and sporting events, to writing the weekly columns. He's a dedicated photographer who loves getting to know the town through the community members that he meets. He's originally from Ottawa, Ont., where he graduated from Carleton University's journalism program in 2018. He can be contacted at 867-777-4545 or at inuvikdrum@nnsl.com. You can check out his photos on his Instagram account: @aaron.hemens.

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