Tax the Fat

It’s Time to Get Serious About Canada’­s Obesity Epidemic

  • Illustration by Myriam Arsenault

Faced with a growing obesity epidemic, Canadians clearly need more reasons to put down their Pepsis and chocolate bars. As widening waistlines have proven insufficient motivation, perhaps the solution is to hit people where it really hurts—in their wallets.

Though some may consider that below the belt, at this point approximately one in four Canadians can be classified as obese, which is twice as many as there were in 1980.

While such astounding figures clearly have very serious health implications for those directly affected, all Canadian taxpayers are being forced to pay more and more for the swelling economic costs of obesity. 

By the end of the last decade, the annual economic cost of obesity in Canada was almost $5 billion—nearly 20 per cent higher than the figure from 2000. Recent annual costs could even be as high as $7 billion if one includes those costs associated with illnesses directly linked to obesity. 

If this trend continues, obesity could very well be costing Canadians almost $9 billion a year by the end of this decade.

Something needs to change and, at this point, direct government action seems like the only option, since neither the free market nor doctors telling patients to “eat right and get lots of exercise” seem to have had any effect in that regard.

While it would be great if the government could legally pursuade everyone to exercise, short of democracy being replaced by benevolent totalitarianism, this seems unlikely to occur.

What would be much more realistic however, would be for the state to hinder the purchase of the sorts of foods whose consumption directly leads to obesity.

This idea is not without precedent. Provincial governments across Canada have been adding special taxes to products that they deem to be harmful for decades.

Alcohol and tobacco are prime examples: tobacco products receive additonal 10-15 per cent sin-tax, and alcoholic beverages receive an additonal $0.40 to $2.00 per litre.

While this kind of taxation works to discourage (however slightly) the use of such products, it also helps pay for the $3.5 billion spent on health care for people who are hospitalized due to their tobacco use, for example.

Tobacco use has gone down over 50 per cent since the early 1970s, when state attempts to curb the use of that product began in earnest. 

As well, the sorts of foods linked to obesity could be made less available and less visible, much like with tobacco and alcohol products. Advertising such products to children could be banned, and their advertisement in general could be seriously curtailed.

Their purchase could also be tied to an age requirement, thus increasing the likelihood of informed and responsible purchase. While these measures may seem both drastic and draconian, obesity is a serious problem with serious effects for all Canadians.  

By imposing a tax on unhealthy foods, Canada could become a place where the casual overconsumption of junk foods is not an economically viable option, which would go a long way towards helping Canada improve the health of its citizens—and its economy.

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