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Proposed Taxation on Sugar-Sweetened Beverages

In February, a proposal to tax sugar-sweetened beverages was put forth by Dietitians of Canada. To find out if registered dietitians are in support of this proposal, we conducted a survey from March 31 to April 14, 2016, among 527 of them.

Position statement

“Dietitians of Canada recommends that an excise tax of at least 10% to 20% be applied to sugar-sweetened beverages sold in Canada given the negative impact of these products on the health of the population and the viability of taxation as a means to reduce consumption. For the greatest impact, taxation measures should be combined with other policy interventions, such as increasing access to healthy foods while decreasing access to unhealthy foods in schools, daycares, and recreation facilities; restrictions on the marketing of foods and beverages to children; and effective, long-term educational initiatives.”1

Beverages included in the proposed taxation:

  • Soft drinks (soda or pop)
  • Fruit drinks (fruit cocktails and punches)
  • Sports drinks
  • Sweetened coffee and tea
  • Energy drinks
  • Flavoured milks or milk alternatives
  • Flavoured drinkable kefir
  • Flavoured drinkable yogurt 
  • Any other beverages to which sugar has been added

Methodology

The survey was conducted among registered dietitians who are signed up for the monthly newsletter NutriNews®. In total, 3,260 survey invitations were sent out. Data were collected between March 31 and April 14, 2016, and many registered dietitians took part—in fact, 527 answered the call.

Across Canada, the highest participation rates were in Quebec (43%), Ontario (23%) and the Atlantic provinces (12%).

Highlights of the survey results

  • Among survey respondents, 82% were somewhat or completely in agreement with the proposal to tax sugar-sweetened beverages.
  • A large proportion of the registered dietitians surveyed would not recommend that flavoured milk, such as chocolate milk (74%), flavoured drinkable yogurt (73%), flavoured drinkable kefir (76%) and flavoured plant-based beverages (75%) be included in the proposed taxation.

Main Results

Registered dietitians’ knowledge and recommendations regarding the proposed taxation

Based on the data collected from the registered dietitians to determine if they were aware of the proposed taxation and comfortable with the recommendation, we divided the beverages into three categories.

  1. Legitimate beverages: This category includes energy drinks, slushies, regular soft drinks, sodas, fruit beverages such as fruit cocktail and punch, and sweetened, ready-to-drink iced tea and coffee.
    • These beverages are considered “legitimate” based on the very high proportion of registered dietitians who are aware (70% to 87%) and in favour of (85% to 93%) their taxation.
  2. Ambivalent beverages: This category includes sports drinks as well as sugar-free soft drinks and sodas.
    • This category includes beverages for which the proportion of registered dietitians who are aware (47% to 61%) and in favour of (30% to 35%) their taxation is less high.
  3. Beverages to exclude from taxation: This category includes flavoured milk, such as chocolate milk, flavoured plant-based beverages, flavoured drinkable yogurt and flavoured drinkable kefir.
    • More than two out of three registered dietitians do not support the taxation of these beverages. Based on the low proportion of registered dietitians aware of their inclusion in the proposed taxation (17% to 23%) and the low level of support (24% to 27%), they are considered “beverages to exclude from taxation.”

The figure below illustrates the exact proportion of survey respondents who are aware and in favour of the proposed taxation for each of the beverages.

Regional differences

  • A significant difference was observed between the proportion of registered dietitians in Quebec who are aware of the inclusion of flavoured milk, flavoured plant-based beverages, flavoured drinkable yogurt and flavoured drinkable kefir and that of the other Canadian provinces. For instance, 13% of registered dietitians in Quebec were aware of the inclusion of flavoured milk, such as chocolate milk, compared with 29% of registered dietitians in Ontario.
  • A significant difference was observed between the proportion of registered dietitians in Quebec who recommend taxing dairy or plant-based beverages and that of the rest of Canada. For instance, only 16% of registered dietitians in Quebec supported taxing flavoured milk, whereas 33% to 34% of registered dietitians from elsewhere in Canada supported it.

Nutritional profile of the beverages

  • The nutritional value differs greatly from one product to another. For instance, chocolate milk contains more than 16 nutrients, whereas soft drinks contain none. So, although both of these beverages contain “added sugar,” the nutritional profile of chocolate milk is much greater than that of soft drinks, especially because it contains calcium and vitamin D, two nutrients that contribute to bone health. In addition, flavoured or chocolate milk consumption increases diet quality among children and adolescents.2,3 Lastly, the research does not show that chocolate milk consumption causes adverse effects on the weight of children and adolescents.2,3

Conclusion

Overall, the survey results, in particular the registered dietitians’ level of support regarding the taxing of flavoured dairy or plant-based beverages, indicate that certain aspects of Dietitians of Canada’s position should be re-examined. The choice of beverages to include in the proposed taxation is extremely important, and the nutritional profile of the beverages should therefore be considered.

NutriNews® is a registered trademark of Dairy Farmers of Canada. 

References

  1. Dietitians of Canada. 2016. Taxation and sugar-sweetened beverages. www.dietitians.ca. Accessed June 27, 2016.
  2. Fayet-Moore F. Effect of flavored milk vs plain milk on total milk intake and nutrient provision in children. Nutr Rev 2016;74:1-17.
  3. Johnson RK et al. Dietary sugars intake and cardiovascular health. A scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation 2009;120:1011-1020.
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