WEST COAST — On Thursday, Sept. 1, the provincial government’s planned ‘sugar tax’ came into effect. This tax means an additional 20 cents per litre on soft drinks and other beverages with added sugar, including fruit juices, iced tea, sweetened sports and energy drinks, and many frozen beverages.
MHA Andrew Parsons (Burgeo – LaPoile) is aware that most people aren’t pleased with the new tax.
“I haven’t had anything expressed to me, but just a little screening of social media says there isn’t a lot of positivity to it. I mean, no one likes to pay more for anything and there seems to be some confusion among some retailers in terms of how to apply it. So there is a bit of a learning curve here, and like with anything new, you have to try and grapple with it, but overall, I don’t think people are generally pleased with it."
Despite the current economic climate where the cost of living continues to climb, Parsons said the timing of the new sugar tax is not something that he believes could have been avoided.
“These things take a significant amount of time to implement. You can never plan for it, but right now, when you look at the pressures we are dealing with when it comes to fuel, when it comes to groceries, when it comes to everything – there's no doubt we’re feeling it – but I will say that is something that is actively being discussed and depending on how things go, we are always willing to figure out new ways to deal with the cost of living.”
Parsons believes this sugar tax is a step in the right direction for getting people to choose healthier beverage options.“Number one, this is not something where the money ends up in treasury or general revenue. It’s not a tax grab to help pay for things. Every cent of this goes towards Kids Eat Smart and physical activity tax credits. So basically dollar for dollar, cent for cent, it’s going into incentives to increase physical activity. At the same time, this has been endorsed by just about any number of healthy living advocates including, I believe, the Dental Association, Pediatric Association, and the Canadian Cancer Society.”
Parsons said the health of residents is something that needs to be taken more seriously.
“The big issue we have in Newfoundland and Labrador is we have the worst health rates in the country and at the same time, conversely, we have the best self-perception of our health. So we are dealing with a situation where we think we are the healthiest people and we are amongst the least healthy in the country. The big effect of that is it’s really affecting our healthcare system. It’s affecting our rate of diabetes, heart issues. So we need to do something about that because, not only is it shortening lives, it’s putting a burden on our healthcare system that is already significantly overburdened.”
Parsons said it may be hard for some to change their own habits, but by implementing this tax, hopefully it will change the habits of younger generations and it will become something they are used to.
“I think, like with anything you do, you have to check the data after a period of time and see where it is. If it works, great. If it doesn’t work, how do we fix it, adjust it, live with it? I can say that this was certainly a policy the Premier felt very strongly about,” said Parsons.
Even though the sugar tax has been introduced as a way to encourage people to choose beverages without added sugar for consumption, there are outspoken critics who aren’t happy with the decision by government to use a tax to achieve this. MHA Tony Wakeham (Stephenville – Port au Port) has been attempting to get the sugar tax dropped since the planned implementation was announced. Wakeham maintains that all it accomplishes is taking more money out of the pockets of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.
“I think most people realize this for what it is. It's simply a tax grab. It’s just another form of taxation and I think if you want to encourage people to consume less sugar, there are better ways to do that, whether it be education programs or finding ways to come up with healthier alternatives.”
Wakeham said the fact remains that hundreds of communities around the province don’t even have access to clean drinking water, something that will make it significantly more difficult for them to choose the healthiest option.
“When you think long term about the idea of trying to get people to simply drink water, it’s not that easy sometimes for people to have access to clean drinking water. We know there are a significant number of communities in our province — over 200 at last count — that have boil orders in effect, which means they can’t drink the water without boiling it, and there are communities in my district that have no supply of clean drinking water. They do not have access to water and that is a concern. I think there’s a lot more that the government has to do to help people live healthier than simply turn around and say, ‘We are going to put another tax so that you won’t drink these products or use these products and that will make you healthier.’”
Wakeham said an alternative could be found instead of taking more money from people.
“When government talks about the programs, they are going to use the revenue from this tax for, they're all good programs. We won’t argue with that at all. They should be funded and they have been funded in the past. They deserve to be funded, they should be funded. I don’t believe that government needs to tax people from this province to fund these programs. The government has flexibility in its budget where, if they truly believe in these programs, they should be funded without having to go back and add an additional tax to the people.”
Apart from the fact that it is putting more pressure on people already struggling, Wakeham said that the tax itself was not implemented as it ought to have been.
“There’s a lot of confusion out there, even from the business community, about what gets taxed, what doesn’t get taxed, how do we collect the money, how do we submit the money. There's a lot of different issues with it,” said Wakeham. “I don’t know why the government is so intent on pushing this tax out. They’ve tried to argue about making people healthier or encourage healthier choices, but there’s a lot of ways to do that, through education programs and other things that could’ve been done. But instead they simply chose to add another tax to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador. Who knows? Maybe this is just the beginning of the new tax regime they seem to have. We don’t know, but it certainly is a tax that was not necessary. There are other ways to help people live healthier lives.”
Deputy Premier Siobhán Coady, Minister of Finance, did not respond to media inquiries prior to publication deadline.
Jaymie White, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Wreckhouse Weekly News