Will taxing Coke and Pepsi make the NWT healthier?

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First it was carbon, now it's carbonated.

The territorial government is to hold public engagement sessions about a new tax on "sugar-sweetened drinks."

Sessions are planned for Tuktoyaktuk, Inuvik, and Yellowknife later this month.

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"The GNWT committed to investigate introducing a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks in the 2017-18 budget as a way to reduce sugar consumption and improve public health," read a statement on Wednesday.

There is an online survey you can complete if you're not able to attend one of the public sessions.

"The input collected at the public engagement sessions will build on the responses already received from the online survey," said the territory.

"Together, the information gathered will help guide the GNWT as we decide whether or not to implement a sugar-sweetened drinks tax."

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Public sessions are as follows:

  • Tuktoyaktuk council chambers, January 28 12-2pm
  • Inuvik Mackenzie Hotel, January 28 7:30-9pm
  • Yellowknife Chateau Nova Hotel, January 29 7:30-9pm

Taxing sugary drinks is seen as a measure to recoup some of the costs of treating diseases and conditions associated with some soft drinks.

In many NWT communities, pop is one the cheapest and most readily-available commodities while healthier, perishable foods can cost many times their usual price farther south.

No tax on 100 percent fruit juice

There is good news if you are worried they were coming for your Diet Coke. The small print suggests the NWT is not targeting beverages labelled 'diet' that do not contain "free sugars."

However, the same small print states some fruit juices would fall among the beverages which would be taxed.

"The technical definition of 'sugary drinks' is all beverages with 'free sugars', which includes all natural sugars in fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates, honey and syrups; and, monosaccharides and disaccharides that are added to foods and beverages," read the NWT's fine print regarding its survey.

"Although the 2017-18 Budget announced an investigation of a 'sugary drinks' tax ... the proposal is for a tax on 'sugar-sweetened beverages,' which are defined as beverages with 'added sugars' and typically includes non-diet carbonated soft drinks, ready-to-drink sweetened tea and coffee, energy drinks, sports drinks, and 'fruit drinks' with less than 100 percent juice.

"The proposed tax is not a 'sugary drinks' tax because it excludes 100 percent fruit juice. 100 percent fruit juices provide other nutrition that is especially important in the Northwest Territories, where fresh fruit is difficult to obtain at affordable prices."

If you want to learn more, the territory has produced a full paper on the proposed tax which, in its title, makes the NWT's ambition clear: it is called Using the Tax System to Encourage Healthy Choices.

In full: Read the NWT's discussion paper on taxing sugar-sweetened drinks

"Obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and oral health problems are serious public health issues in the Northwest Territories, and consuming too much sugar is part of the problem," reads the introduction to that paper.

The paper adds: "Using 2015 data, over 39 percent of the NWT adult (age 18 and over) population is considered obese (body mass index of 30 or more), which is significantly higher than the national rate of 26 percent."

The territory is proposing a tax rate of five cents per 100 ml for drinks in containers, alongside a comparable rate for fountain drinks.

As examples, that could mean a 22-percent increase in the price of a 355-ml can in Yellowknife, or a 41-percent increase in the price of a two-litre bottle.

The percentage change depends on the base price. In communities where soft drinks are pricier, the percentage difference would be lower.

This public consultation marks the start of a busy year for the NWT's tax authorities.

The territory is already managing the introduction, at Ottawa's behest, of a controversial carbon tax regime due to kick in from July this year.

Many of the territory's carbon tax measures are designed to be revenue-neutral, handing residents 100-percent rebates for items like heating fuel – and leading some to question the point of the tax in those circumstances.