Some experts not so 'sweet' on N.L. soft-drink tax

After the province of Newfoundland and Labrador announced details on its so-called "sugary drink" tax Tuesday, some experts are advising caution on the approach.

The Newfoundland government plans to put a 20-cent per litre tax on beverages with added sugars, which it projects will bring in about $9 million a year. The tax will be applied on top of provincial sales tax starting Sept. 1 next year.

Some drinks are excluded, including chocolate milk, diet drinks using artificial sweeteners, and infant formulas.

For Sara Kirk, a professor of health promotion at Dalhousie University, the idea of taxing sugar-sweetened drinks to reduce consumption is a good one.

But she also says it's how it's done that matters most.

"We're looking for a sweet spot really in terms of how we do that," says Kirk.

While she says there is evidence from other jurisdictions that have a similar tax in place that sugar consumption does decrease, every context is different.

"The U.K. one was very much aimed at industry," she says as an example.

That was a levy introduced in 2018 and taxes the manufacturer rather than the consumer.

According to a study published this year in a British medical journal, while Brits didn't reduce the volume of soft drink they purchased, their sugar consumption did drop. That's because producers reduced the amount of sugar in their drinks in response to the levy. 

"What you really want to be doing with a tax, is changing individual behaviour but also changing the behaviour of industry," says Kirk.

But, there is concern among experts about what the tax could mean for those who simply can't afford the rising cost of healthier options.

Jennifer Brady of MSVU's Applied Human Nutrition department says any reduction in sugar consumption is outweighed by the potential harm to those who may rely on those kinds of drinks.

"Putting a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages disproportionately burdens those who drink more sugar-sweetened beverages," she says, "And does that include? It includes poor or low-income families who really can't afford to spend more on their groceries."

Brady points to the high cost of alternatives such as milk. She would like to see a different approach.

"Increasing access for poor families to healthy foods or better yet, improve their ability to afford a healthy diet is essentially what it comes down to for me," she says.

That's something Kirk says could be done, by using the revenue from a sugar tax to fund healthy food initiatives.

"To have something like a subsidized food program," she says, "or subsidies on healthy foods like fruits and vegetables as well."

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation, meanwhile, calls the idea "a tax grab."

"It will increase the cost of living at the worst possible time," says CTF federal director Franco Terrazano, "and it will mean the most pain, for those who can least afford it."

For registered dietitian Meredith Lapp, who often helps her clients cut back their sugar intake, sugar-sweetened drinks are just the tip of the iceberg.

"The problem really becomes that sugar is so prevalent in our food supply," she says.

That's part of the reason she believes says taxing sugar-sweetened beverages doesn't look at the whole picture.

"Access to clean water, access to nutrient dense local foods … finding ways to support or incentivize foods in schools for example," she says.

As for whether any Maritime provinces will be following Newfoundland and Labrador's example, Nova Scotia's Minister of Health and Wellness said today the province isn't considering it.

"I think what would be important would be to understand whether the evidence points to whether or not it creates behavior change," said Michelle Thompson.

"What's really important is that we look at an upstream approach where we create public policy where a healthy choice is the easy choice."