Speech on Obesity Report
Hon. Art Eggleton: Honourable senators, I am delighted to be able to rise, having seconded the motion that Senator Ogilvie placed yesterday for the adoption of this report.
This report marks a milestone in terms of communications, because it’s a report that many people have already heard of on the subject of obesity. I will cover a few of the points in the report to supplement and complement what Senator Ogilvie said yesterday.
The first thing he did yesterday was to thank various people who have been instrumental in getting this report to its complete stage. Without naming all of those people, I certainly agree with him and echo those sentiments, but I want to add one more, and that is to thank Senator Kelvin Ogilvie for his leadership of the committee. He ensures the committee gets the right evidence before it so that it can make sensible, evidence-based decisions on the recommendations it will make. I pay tribute to him as well in that regard.
I also want to point out that in the time that he and I have served as chair and deputy chair — actually, before that it was the other way around, so you had that time as well — all of the reports that we have come out with have been dealt with in the same kind of diligence and attention to detail and evidence that gives a great deal of credit to the committee and to this Senate Chamber.
I’m very pleased to say that all the reports on studies that we have done have been unanimously adopted by the committee, and I think that says an awful lot for how we can work together to produce some very good policy initiatives, policy possibilities for the government of this country either past, present or future to be able to adopt and well serve the people of Canada, and this is one of them.
Until we got into this subject, I had not realized just how serious it was. We know of obesity existing, but its climb in the last few years is staggering. This is really a very serious health issue in our country. It not only affects the lives of many people by deteriorating their standard of living and quality of life, but it can cost them their lives because it leads to diseases such as Type 2 diabetes, cancer and heart disease.
These kinds of afflictions are taking a great toll on a great many people. It does take a toll on every one of us, because we know people who are suffering from those ailments.
We know people who find it a challenge to deal with obesity. It is particularly a challenge not only for the individual but for society in general. The kind of culture or obesogenic situation that we find ourselves in today is a problem for society as a whole. It needs to be dealt with in that way, and the 21 recommendations we came up with in our report attempt to do that.
When you look at the fact that since 1980 we have seen a doubling of the number of adults who suffer from obesity, and you add to that the people who are overweight, you’re talking the majority of the population. That’s staggering. Then you look at children, and you see that it’s increased three times since 1980.
We listened to different organizations such as the Heart & Stroke Foundation, the Canadian Diabetes Association, the Canadian Cancer Society and many others that have developed a great deal of expertise and knowledge in these areas. We listened to the medical professionals, researchers and experts.
One of the great things we have in our committees is the ability to draw upon some of the greatest expertise that exists not only in this country but internationally. We draw on all of that, and it’s from there that we make recommendations.
These recommendations are not made lightly and are not in any way exaggerated or distorted. They are based on very sound evidence that we have received.
Those kinds of statistics, 25 per cent obese adults, 13 per cent obese children, twice as many adults and three times as many children as in 1980, are staggering. Even more staggering is what’s happening in the Aboriginal community, where 35 per cent of adults are obese. What is so shocking is that 62 per cent of the children are obese — 62 per cent — it’s unreal. That is absolutely staggering. Since 1980, those developing diabetes number three to five times more than before 1980 and this is a very serious illness.
Obesity is affecting us not only in terms of the people we know, family and friends, but also in terms of the whole country financially. Obesity is costing billions of dollars, estimated somewhere between $4.5 billion and $7 billion a year, in so many different ways directly and indirectly.
In our recommendations, we call for a national campaign to combat obesity. Senator Ogilvie mentioned this yesterday as being our first recommendation. We need to bring all of the stakeholders together to develop this initiative. It needs to be led at the federal level and needs to be a program maybe not unlike, in some respects, the antismoking campaign that we had. I say that in the context of the kind of focus and concentration that we put on the issue. It still took several years for that to show the results we wanted. And this may take some time as well. But let’s get into it now by having measurements. Let’s look at the goals, the timetables and the ways of measuring how we are moving along with combating obesity in this country.
Later in the report we have a number of other recommendations, and I won’t highlight them all, but I will mention the food guide. The food guide in places like the United States is updated every five years. We haven’t updated ours since 2007. The previous guide was issued in 1993, an even longer period of time. It has been a long time since the food guide has been updated. The thinking around this and the evidence are changing, such as attitudes toward or lack of evidence of the impact of fat. For example, not all fats are bad. Certainly, in the kind of food guide that exists today it leads to more people avoiding most fat of any kind and substituting with carbohydrates, yet many carbohydrates are facilitating the problem.
The biggest thing with the food guide is bringing highly processed foods to the attention of people. That’s where much of the danger exists in terms of sugar, fat and salt. We need to move away from some of them. And it’s up to the public because they have to decide. The kind of information we give them in a guide will be very important. The food guide is one of the most popular documents that the government has, so let’s make sure that it helps to give people the kind of information they should have.
Getting away from highly processed foods is one thing. Brazil recently issued a remake of its guide. Very early on, it talks about avoiding highly processed foods and opting for more whole and natural foods. It also talks about what you would put on a plate at dinner. Our guide talks more about nutrients than about meals, but people eat meals not nutrients. So let’s talk about meals. The United States may update every five years, and their guide now talks about “my plate.” It gets into a language and a description of the kinds of foods that will lead to a healthier lifestyle as well as the kinds of foods to try to avoid as much as possible in terms of an unhealthy lifestyle.
We also called for a ban on the advertising of sugary drinks for children. As Senator Ogilvie pointed out so correctly, this is a very vulnerable population. Many ads for products containing unhealthy substances are being marketed to children. We suggest that the government look at the possibility of regulation on the basis of what is already happening in Quebec. Quebec banned such advertising for children and do you know what? Quebec has the lowest rate of obesity in children between the ages of 3 and 11 across the country. What does that tell you? That tells you there is something to be said about banning such advertising directed at children. Don’t swallow the idea that the industry will do this voluntarily. They have had a chance to do it and it’s not working.
The most controversial element is the tax. Tax is worse than a four-letter word in some countries, including this one. In this case, we’re talking about a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. Do you know that a can of pop has the equivalent of 10 teaspoons of sugar? Imagine that. That’s pretty hard on the system. If you have one can of pop a day, that would be your sugar for the day. Of course, there are so many other products, including highly processed foods, that have sugar in them that you’ll likely get a lot more than just what you get from consuming one can of pop.
We are not suggesting a tax grab by the government. We’re suggesting that maybe it should be offset by some tax reductions. Where would you do that? Well, let me tell you one thing: If you go to a grocery store and buy a tomato, a cabbage, a head of lettuce and all the other ingredients to make a salad, all those products are called “basic groceries,” which are not taxable. There’s no HST or GST on those. But right beside those basics, there’s a little plastic container with a salad already put together with the same ingredients and you pay tax on it. Now that’s crazy because you shouldn’t have to pay tax on a healthy food product.
Then you walk a couple of aisles over to the cereal boxes, which are loaded with sugar and salt. You don’t pay tax on those because they’re basic groceries. There’s an imbalance between what is healthy and taxed and what is not healthy and not taxed. Any revenue we might get from the sugary drinks could be used to offset that and cancel those taxes on healthy foods. No government treasury is going to benefit from it if they follow our suggestion, but the public will obviously be better off by having healthier foods at a cheaper price than the unhealthy foods. It won’t stop anybody from continuing to have the product, just like you can’t stop anybody from smoking, but people may think twice about it, particularly before giving it to their children.
Those are some of the recommendations. Nutrition labeling needs to be improved as many labels are very confusing. Perhaps we could use front-of-package labeling or use a red-light/green- light system on labels like they do in Sweden and the U.K. to indicate the sugar, fat and salt contents. For example, the green light indicates that the amounts are safe and healthy for you.
As I said, all in all there are some 21 recommendations. I commend the report to you. Certainly, the feedback I have received from all the public exposure under our new communications plan has been very positive. Remember, even recommendations like a sugary-drink tax have been supported by major organizations such as the Heart & Stroke Foundation, the Diabetes Association and others. Witnesses from some of the medical professions who came before us think this is needed because it is a major part of the problem.
I hope we will adopt this report and that the government will implement it. We will be looking for them to report back, as is required by the resolution, and we hope they will take action, because this will help many Canadians to lead healthier, longer lives.