Barrett: Leave my lattes alone - and the idea of a sugar tax on beverages

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The problem with creating taxes as a disincentive to using certain products, is it then starts to become a go-to “solution” for advocates and special interest groups to combat a variety of issues.

Implementing the carbon tax was supposed to persuade Canadians to make the switch to still largely unaffordable electric cars and change their driving habits (nevermind our Prime Minister took more family vacations that required flights on the government’s Challenger jet than many take in a lifetime), and punish anyone who dares to use cars to go to work so they can pay for the carbon tax and the federal government’s outrageous spending.

So now, apparently, it just makes sense to start looking at imposing a tax on sugary beverages, from pop to specialty coffees, energy drinks, as well as syrups to make said drinks. At least, that’s what the University of Manitoba has started looking into, as per a CTV News report over the weekend.

The plan is to issue a report on public feedback, which based on findings could potentially see the government lobbied to impose the tax which would see sugary drinks taxed 20 per cent more than healthy ones.  The theory is it might help combat obesity and influence people to make healthier choices. Several states in the U.S. have imposed such a tax to varying degrees of success, and it has been looked at or imposed in other countries, such as the Philippines.

It’s also been highly controversial – and rightly so.

I don’t think anyone is arguing against the potential merits of a such a tax. I’m all for promoting healthier choices – working in a high-stress, odd-hour job, it’s not always easy to eat balanced meal, or cut back on the sugary, caffeinated beverages that keep me going through deadline day. However, I’m not at all for a tax aimed at stripping away bodily autonomy.

It’s ironic that during a time when the abortion debate is once again making headlines with people advocating for a women’s right to choose what happens with her body, we’re now looking at a tax aimed at stopping women and men and all the supposed genders in between from having the freedom to decide what goes into their bodies.

Women can choose to abort, everyone should be able to give or not give consent when it comes to sex, terminal patients can choose to end their own life with assisted suicide, but when it comes to what people eat, apparently that autonomy to decide what we do with our own bodies isn’t as important.

You can pry cappuccinos and lattes from my cold dead hands. As my sister often says: “I’m here for a good time, not a long time.”

In all seriousness, I appreciate they’re trying to combat obesity, but there are better ways to do so then a tax that starts erosion of freedom. Educational programs, incentives to exercise and be active (like the children’s fitness tax credit the Liberals did away with that suddenly made hockey and dance $500 more expensive for my own family) should all be looked at first. Why not research incentives for businesses to find ways to encourage active lifestyle initiatives in the workplace, making physical education mandatory all the way up to Grade 12 (I was able to opt-out after Grade 10), finding ways to reduce the cost of sports, or even finding ways to support our local farmers to help make fresh produce and healthy choices more affordable, rather than “junk” food more expensive.

Besides, what about someone dealing with diabetes who might need to regulate their blood glucose levels? Should someone like that have to pay an extra 20 per cent tax because their health concerns vary from the average citizen?

At what point do we draw the line on how much interference a government should have on our personal choices? Should they be responsible for our health, or just governing health policies and the provision of services that the public can access should we choose to?

If we allow a tax on sugary drinks, how soon before anything with sugar or ingredients deemed “unhealthy” is taxed? I was little when they believed cholesterol from eggs might not be all that great, and soon health experts decided the opposite. Are we going to have cases where taxes come in and out on a variety of foods and it becomes so chaotic trying to figure out what should be taxed and what shouldn’t that everything is then taxed?

And if foods are being taxed for health concerns, why stop there? Why not tax suntanning, household products with any kind of WHMIS (Workplace Hazardous Material Information System) symbols on them, computer screens/tablets/phones/laptops because screens are bad for eyesight, tattoos because of infection risks, building materials, or anything that could potentially cause us harm?

How do we know that one day those decisions don’t lead to a government-regulated meal plan for everyone where you’ll never be able to celebrate birthdays with cake and icecream, or have bacon with your morning breakfast? Perhaps it’s extreme, but if you look at the history of dictators, many of their first actions started with subtle erosion of freedoms, and that’s something we all should be mindful of.

Fortunately, there are no plans to put in such a tax at the federal level at this point, so I don’t have to go all Hulk over not having coffee to keep me going.

Let’s just hope it stays that way.

abarrett@postmedia.com

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