Sugar High

by Deirdre Kelly

photography by Chris Robinson

We have a new battleground and it’s covered in bubbles. The war against sugary carbonated drinks is now raging, just as the dog days of summer have us wanting to do little more than pour ourselves a sweetened cold one. But don’t pull that pop can tab just yet, cautions Tarra Penney, an assistant professor in the School of Global Health at York University who has been studying the soft drink industry since 2017.

What might look like an innocent beverage is actually a lethal weapon with the capacity to take out the human body one heaping spoonful of glucose at a time. Sugar-loaded drinks and excess sugar consumption – including 100 per cent fruit juices and caffeine-laden so-called energy drinks – are associated with chronic disease, including obesity, heart disease and stroke, diabetes, tooth decay and some cancers. Drinking just one can of soda per day can increase the risk of developing diabetes by 22 per cent, according to a report released by the Canadian Heart & Stroke Foundation.

Consumers continue to buy pop regardless of a tax and warnings that sugary drinks are harmful

Enter the soda pop tax, an attempt by governments to disincentivize the drinking and manufacture of high-caloric soft drinks. In September, Newfoundland and Labrador will implement a tax of 20 cents on every litre of sugar-sweetened beverages. That’s more than the provincial 14.5 cents a litre slapped on gasoline. Dubbed the “Pepsi tax,” it’s the first sugar pop tariff to burst the bubble in Canada. The tax follows soft drink duties introduced elsewhere in the world, including countries like Finland, France, Mexico and the U.K., as well as some U.S. municipalities, including Berkeley and New York City. The Canadian Paediatric Society now wants a 20 per cent excise tax imposed on all sugary drinks across the country, saying that such a policy could prevent 12,000 cases of cancer, more than 30,000 cases of ischemic heart disease, almost 5,000 strokes and close to 1.4 million cases of type 2 diabetes over the 25-year period ending in 2041. So more taxes may follow.

But do they work? It’s complicated, says Penney, who has contributed to a series of studies looking at the wide-ranging impacts of the Soft Drinks Industry Levy as it has existed in Britain since 2018. A chronic disease prevention specialist, she learned that the tax incentivized pop drink companies to lower sugar levels in sweetened beverages but also goaded them to ramp up their marketing campaigns to ensure profits. Consumers continue to buy pop regardless of a tax and warnings that sugary drinks are harmful. Statista, an online platform specializing in market and consumer data, reports that retail sales of sports and energy drinks in Canada are forecasted to reach around US$1.03 billion in 2022, an increase of around US$200 million in sales since 2017.

“As a population health researcher, I am more focused than ever on the complex impacts of policy on health,” says Penney, who has published several academic papers on the health impacts of fiscal policies. “I used to think we were in control of our behaviour, but through my research, I’ve realized that many things influence us to do things that don’t match up with our plans and goals.”  

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