EDITORIAL: Sweetened to death

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Visit any general store in the territory from Fort Smith to Ulukhaktok and the shelves are sure to be stocked with row after row of sugary drinks.

The appeal of these sugary beverages is clear: they’re delicious and relatively inexpensive, they take years to expire and in a number of Northern communities they represent a safe alternative to unsafe drinking water when a boil water advisory is in effect.

But they’re pretty terrible for your health, which is why the territorial government could soon be taxing your sodas, energy drinks and iced teas.

A bag of groceries already costs an arm and a leg and the last thing people need is a government cash grab, but sugary drinks are very unhealthy. Taxing them may be warranted, provided the funds collected are reinvested into projects that benefit the population – particularly young people and the poor – as this tax will disproportionately affect our most vulnerable citizens.

Over the years there have been many studies on the health effects of sugary drinks and the consensus is they are bad for you.

Consuming too much sugar increases your risk of suffering serious health problems, such as heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and cancer, not to mention tooth decay.

And while sugar is everywhere – in cookies, pastries, pasta sauce and even ostensibly healthy beverages like juice – there is a particularly large amount in soft drinks.

There are 39 grams of sugar in a 12 oz can of Coca-Cola, which is equal to about 85 per cent of the recommended amount of added sugar you should consume for a standard 2,000 calorie-a-day diet, according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada.

Throw in some sugar for your coffee and a slice of pie for desert and it’s no wonder why so many of us are sweetening ourselves to poor health.

The Department of Health and Social Services 2017-2018 annual report states that 39.8 per cent of NWT residents are obese, which is much higher than the Canadian average of 26.3 per cent.

If almost 40 per cent of Canadians were obese, there would be a national outcry and sugary beverages would have been taxed a long time ago, but a steady drumbeat of alarming reports have caused Northerners to grow numb to sub-par health statistics. It doesn’t have to be this way.

A number of residents spoke out against the proposed tax during public consultations in Inuvik and Yellowknife last week. They argued that people are still going to buy pop, no matter the cost.

But there is plenty of evidence that taxes on sugary drinks and junk food can curb unhealthy consumption habits. Mexico is perhaps the best-known example.

That country passed a nationwide soda tax in 2014 and sugary drink sales fell by over five per cent among the poorest households in the first year after the tax was introduced.

Others have argued that the tax will most heavily affect the poor, the young and those living in remote communities, which is why the proceeds from the tax should go to help those people. And it should be transparent, noted separated in the GNWT’s budget, so people can see the tax money is being spent on these programs. Otherwise, the government will be tempted to divert the money to whatever it feels like spending it on.

Funds raised from the tax could go to Nutrition North, to subsidies for fresh fruits and vegetables, to school lunch programs, food banks and other worthy causes.

Some people might be leery of the government trying to legislate what we eat and drink. And it’s true, having the state sticking its nose into our grocery stores and kitchens is a bit of an imposition, but consider this. It would be totally illegal for James Robert B. Quincey, president and CEO of The Coca Cola Company, to come to your house, kick down your door and assault you and your family with a stick.

But it is perfectly legal for him to sell you and your children a sugary drink that will make you fat, rot your teeth and give you diabetes.

That’s also an imposition and that’s capitalism for you.

And that’s why we need government policies to protect the people from the predatory inclinations of amoral corporations.

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