Ontario doctors calling for tax, warning labels on junk food

The Ontario Medical Association (OMA) launched a new campaign Tuesday in an effort to combat obesity in the province, which the health group says is a growing public health epidemic and is a strain on the health care system that costs the taxpayers about $2.5 billion per year.

According to an OMA press release, doctors are advocating for taxes and warning labels on junk food just like the way tobacco is regulated.  The group explained that 75 percent of overweight children will remain so in adulthood and the health effects will be serious and everlasting, such as cancer and heart disease, unless action is taken.

Recommendations include decreasing taxes on healthy foods, restricting marketing of fatty and sugary foods to children, limiting the availability of low-nutritional foods in places visited by young people and implementing retail displays in stores so consumers are aware of the low-nutritional content.

The OMA went onto explain that placing taxes and warning labels on junk food, like French fries for example, would assist in the reduction of consumption of non-nutritional foods.  This would be akin to the anti-tobacco initiative launched in the late 1960s.  Doctors say there is an “enormous body of evidence” that attributes tax increases on tobacco products as the culprit for the success of the efforts.

In 1999, the Canadian federal government ordered cigarette makers to establish grotesque images of gum disease, cancer patients and “a slow and painful death” on the front of cigarette packages.

“We are raising a generation of children that will suffer from devastating and wholly preventable diseases, overwhelm the health system, and die prematurely,” said Dr. Doug Weir, OMA President, in the media release.  “We need immediate and strong legal action to address what Ontario’s doctors are now seeing in the diabetes clinics and the stroke centers, and on the operating table: a full-scale public health crisis.”

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) labeled the proposal as “quack economics” and stated that there is no evidence to verify that food taxes have improved consumers’ nutritional behavior or health outcomes.

“If Ontario doctors want to practice economics, they should uphold the same standards of scientific rigor they insist on in their own profession,” said Gregory Thomas, CTF Ontario Director, in a statement.  “Special taxes on food hurt everyone.  Food taxes hurt marathoners who enjoy sports drinks, and they hurt single parents who treat their kids to Coke and a bag of chips once in a while. Food taxes don’t address the root causes of obesity and bad nutrition.”

Thomas cited a food tax in Denmark that was introduced in 2011.  This measure led to intense job losses and consumers went food shopping in Germany.  Also, there have been no scientific studies to show any positive health benefits from the tax, the organization said.

ECN sought comment from Thomas, but there has been no response as of yet.

Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews said that the province appreciates the recommendations from the OMA.

“Prevention and staying healthy is a key pillar of my Action Plan for health care. We know that obesity in childhood contributes to the rise in life-long chronic diseases, such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease,” said the health minister in a statement emailed to ECN.  “That’s why we’re taking on the challenge of reducing childhood obesity and have brought together experts from across the province at our Healthy Kids Panel who will provide recommendations on how we can meet our challenge.”

This new proposal comes as cities in the United States have been introducing or considering bans on certain junk food items.

Last month, New York City made the news worldwide after Mayor Michael Bloomberg banned the sale of large sodas and other sugary drinks at restaurants, street carts and movie theaters. Meanwhile, the District of Columbia council is debating on whether or not it should support a ban on large sugary beverages.

Pedro Ribeiro, spokesperson for Mayor Vincent C. Gray, told the Washington Post that the proposal “sounds interesting,” but there have been no plans to push for such an idea at this time.  “We’d have to have lots of hearings, and we’d have to look at lots of science before deciding on something like that.”

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