In August, New York City’s mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the ban of sugary beverages that are larger than 16 ounces at restaurants, mobile food carts, sports arenas and movie theatres. The ban would not apply to fruit juices, alcoholic beverages, diet sodas or dairy-based drinks such as milkshakes. Some have criticized Bloomberg as a state nanny.
Here at home, the Ontario Medical Association called for graphic warning labels to be placed on certain foods. This aggressive action is needed, they say, to tackle obesity which has become a “full-scale public health crisis”.
Personally, I am all for increased education and awareness about healthy choices and portion sizes. I like the idea of helping consumers understand that consumption of sugary beverages should be limited. And so, I see Bloomberg as a nutrition champion, not a nanny. But I’m not sold on the junk food tax. Denmark has just repealed its contentious fat tax just over a year after its implementation. Foods containing more than 2.3 percent saturated fat, such as butter and margarine, were subject to the tax. The tax impacted the economy and drove Danes into cross-border shopping into Germany and Sweden.
A big concern that I have with a junk food tax is that it villanizes food. It creates an environment of punishment rather than compassion when trying to help people deal with food and weight. It further stigmatizes those who are overweight or obese, blaming them for their food choices. We know however that obesity is a complex issue influenced by so many other controllable and non-controllable factors such as exercise and genetics.
Plus, a junk food tax isn’t as simple as it looks. How would we define “junk food”? Would it be based on calories or fat or both? Would healthy choices such as olive oil or nuts be labelled as “junk”? Surely not. And what about the idea of moderation? Should we not also consider how often the food is consumed, and how the food might fit into an overall healthy, balanced diet? Dr. Ayra Sharma, Professor of Medicine & Chair in Obesity Research and Management at the University of Alberta sums it all up nicely, “What matters is the context in which the foods are served and how much of it is consumed.”