Imagine if the true cost to society of the food you buy at the grocery store was built right into the price of each product. Anything with added sugar would cost a lot more, according to University of Alberta researchers in a new study in The Canadian Journal of Public Health.
They put the economic burden of excessive sugar consumption in Canada at $5 billion a year, thanks to the direct and indirect costs associated with 16 chronic diseases. The researchers call on governments to use taxation, subsidies, education and other measures to encourage healthier eating habits, saying this is “an area where action is urgently needed” in the post-COVID-19 pandemic era.
“This pandemic has caused us to adopt more unhealthy lifestyles, on the nutrition side, on the physical activity side and on the screen time side for children. If we don’t act now, we should expect more chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes in the coming years,” said lead researcher Paul Veugelers, a professor in the U of A School of Public Health.
“Health care costs for chronic diseases are skyrocketing,” Veugelers said. “We not only need to make our healthcare system more efficient, but we also need to act on the demand side by investing in primary prevention to ensure that we have fewer patients with chronic diseases. Addressing sugar consumption is a strategy to achieve this.
Both Canada’s food guide and the World Health Organization recommend consuming less than 10% of our daily energy intake as “free sugar” from foods with added sugar and naturally sweetened juices, honey and syrup. For additional health benefits, less than five percent is recommended.
Using the data reported in the 2015 Canadian Community Health Survey on nutrition, researchers found that two out of three Canadians eat more sugar than recommended. They then came up with risk estimates for 16 diet-related chronic diseases, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, kidney disease and low back pain. They calculated avoidable direct health care costs such as doctors, hospitals and drugs, as well as indirect costs such as lost productivity due to illness and disability.
They concluded that if Canadians had followed the 10% recommendation in 2019, approximately $2.5 billion could have been saved and $5 billion in costs could have been avoided by following the stricter 5% recommendation.
Chronic disease treatment and management accounts for 67% of all health care costs in Canada, they reported, with an annual cost of up to $190 billion.
Researchers have estimated that limiting free sugar intake to less than 10% of energy intake could reduce the prevalence of diabetes by 27%, and this benefit could be as high as 44.8% if Canadians limited their sugar intake to less by 5%.
“Diabetes is just a very expensive disease to manage and treat. It can start at an early age and you can live with it for a very, very long time. Kidney problems, dialysis, amputation, these are just a few horrific examples of where this disease trajectory can go,” Veugelers said. “Patients need many health care interactions that drive the costs of chronic disease.”
Forty countries and cities around the world have already introduced a special tax on sugary drinks such as soft drinks to deter consumption, building on lessons learned from tobacco control measures. Newfoundland and Labrador recently introduced the first tax of its kind in Canada and similar policies have been suggested elsewherebut in this study, the researchers advocate a broader approach, as they found that only 17% of the costs associated with sugar consumption could be attributed to sugary drinks.
Instead, they are advocating for higher taxes on all products with added sugar and to direct tax revenue to subsidies for healthy foods, education programs, limits on advertising to children and a better labeling of products.
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The Economic Burden of Excessive Sugar Consumption in Canada: Should the Scope of Preventive Action Be Widened? The Canadian Journal of Public Health2022. DOI: 10.17269/s41997-022-00615-x
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