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Op-Ed: It’s time for the federal government to take a leadership role on rising obesity rates

Ban advertising of unhealthy foods to kids, tax sugary drinks, revamp food guide, prohibit use of trans fats, among Senate report recommendations

 By Senator Kelvin Ogilvie and Senator Art Eggleton

Almost two thirds of adults in Canada are overweight or obese, according to Statistics Canada – a dramatic increase that has taken place over the last thirty plus years.  Unfortunately the increase in obesity rates has also affected our children.  Around 13 percent of Canadian children between the ages of five and 17 are obese while 20 percent are considered overweight.  These are dangerously high numbers. 

Put another way, the number of obese adults has doubled and the number of obese children in Canada has tripled since 1980.

It’s cold comfort to find that Canada is not alone. All industrialized countries have much the same pattern of increasing obesity rates.  However, Canada is among those countries leading the pack, with some of the highest obesity rates among OECD countries, ranking fifth among 40 countries.

What are the consequences?

During the same time frame, we’ve witnessed an increase in the rates of several chronic conditions: diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, osteoarthritis and certain cancers.  Even though Canadians live longer than in previous generations, these conditions are resulting in more unhealthy years at the end of life, and put an increased demand on our publicly funded health care system.  Evidence says these conditions are responsible for between 48,000 and 66,000 deaths in Canada each year.

In addition to lives lost and quality of life reduced, obesity also has economic consequences.  An increased burden of ill health on overweight and obese Canadians results in a lower rate of employment, higher absenteeism rates and decreased on-the-job productivity.

So what’s the way forward? 

This week, the Senate Committee for Social Affairs, Science and Technology, released its report, Obesity in Canada: A Whole-of-Society Approach for a Healthier Canada and put forward 21 concrete recommendations, informed by expert testimony from a wide range of disciplines. 

Bottom line: It’s time for the federal government to take aggressive measures to help Canadians achieve and maintain healthy weights.   

In exploring ways for Canada to move forward, the report notes that we can learn lessons from Canada’s anti-smoking strategy.  For starters, the anti-smoking strategy relied upon several different policies and approaches implemented by all levels of government.  The anti-smoking strategy also had to convey the body of scientific evidence on negative health consequences to all Canadians.  And those working on the anti-smoking strategy understood they not only had to change minds, but behaviour too -- and that this change in behaviour would take time.  It was also necessary for the federal government to provide the leadership for a pan-Canadian approach. 

With this model in mind, the Senate report calls on the federal government to create a “health in all policies” approach and implement a National Campaign to Combat Obesity with concrete goals, timelines and progress reports, and in partnership with the provinces and territories.

Specifically, the report recommends a number of pragmatic measures that could be implemented right away, including strict controls on the advertising of unhealthy food and beverages to children.  It’s also time for a new tax on sugar-sweetened as well as artificially-sweetened beverages – and a prohibition on the use of partially hydrogenated oils to minimize trans fat content in food.

The report also emphasizes the need to find ways to increase the affordability of healthy foods, including removing or reducing taxes on them and considering food subsidies. To address escalating obesity rates in our northern and aboriginal populations in particular, the report calls on the government to implement the recommendations made by the Auditor General to the Nutrition North campaign.  

Experts also told the Senate Committee that the Canada Food Guide is woefully out of date and out of step with the most recent research, and so we recommend that the Minister of Health immediately undertake a complete revision of Canada’s food guide in order that it better reflect the current state of scientific evidence. 

The report calls for strict limits on the use of permitted health claims and nutrient content claims on food packaging – so Canadians can make informed, evidence-based decisions. For the same reason, the report calls on the Minister to require nutrition labelling on menus in restaurants.

Perhaps most surprising in the report is the OECD assessment which found the cost of implementing a comprehensive package of measures to counter obesity in Canada would cost us only $33 per capita.  A reasonable cost for helping Canadians stay healthy.    

There are many policy levers all levels of government can implement to help Canadians make healthier lifestyle and nutrition choices – these are just a few.  Now it’s time the federal government helped coordinate the plan to make it all happen.

Kelvin K. Ogilvie and Art Eggleton are respectively the Chair and Deputy Chair of the Senate Standing Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology.