A tax on soda pop? Expect the debate to keep bubbling

A tax on soda pop? Expect the debate to keep bubbling

By Shachi Kurl, Executive Director

August 12, 2016 – Despite recent revelations that the federal government had looked into implementing a tax on soda pop in an effort to reduce obesity rates, the fizz for this idea, it would seem, ultimately fell flat.

Ottawa’s study was conducted at the beginning of the year, prior to the March 22 budget. In the end, Finance Minister Bill Morneau did not stand in the house and tell Canadians their favourite sugary soft drinks were going to cost more – but it has us at the Angus Reid Institute thinking about whether Canadians would have been sweet on the idea.

And wouldn’t you know, we polled Canadians on this very topic back in April, not long after a Senate committee on social affairs declared the country was in the midst of an “obesity crisis” and made 21 recommendations aimed at slimming Canadians down. Among them – taxing those slim cans of pop (and the big ones, and the bottles, you get the picture).

Canadians aren’t exactly bubbling about the prospect of a tax on artificially sweetened beverages. As you can see in the graph below – published in our April poll of just over 1500 Canadians – it’s the least popular choice compared to other interventions recommended by the Senate:

artificially sweetened beverage tax

And even though such a tax is a more divisive choice – some respondents are more divided than others. What do I mean? Well, opposition or support for an issue is often driven by a particular segment of the population. Men, or older people, or those with more or less income or education. Sometimes – it’s the regional differences that tilt the national view.

When it comes to a soda tax, Albertans were least likely to support a levy (41%) and Quebecers most likely (58%). Younger men and women also had more divergent views – with men aged 18-34 less inclined towards a tax (47%) compared to women their age (58%). That said – when it comes to polling data – these differences aren’t tremendously significant.

artificially sweetened beverage tax

Moreover, there is one point of consistency on this divisive issue that stands out. The survey asked respondents whether they themselves were overweight or obese (we respected their privacy though – and some preferred not to say.) Among those who self-identified as carrying at least some extra weight (about two-fifths of the overall national sample), 52 per cent were in favour of a soda tax – exactly the same level of support as from all respondents.

To policy makers – especially politicians – these results represent something of a sticky situation. Without any demographics strongly driving opposition to or support for a tax, any government would stand an excellent chance of ticking off about half the population – regardless of where they live, how old they are, how much they earn, or, indeed, how much they weigh.

And then there’s skepticism about effectiveness. Indeed, belief that a measure would be effective is slightly lower than support for the measure itself, as seen in the graph below:

artificially sweetened beverage tax

So, for now – this issue is on ice, and government is content to let you sip your soda without the burden of an added tax. That may sound refreshing during these hot summer days, but I’m not convinced this bottle’s been closed for good.

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