For the Record

For Immediate Release:
November 13, 2002

For more information:
Bill Jeffery

   Groups Tell Romanow Commission
“Save Health Care Costs by Helping Consumers
Improve Diets and Increase Physical Activity”

OTTAWA (November 13, 2002) - The Centre for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) urged the Romanow Commission on the Future of Health Care to recommend reducing health care costs by helping Canadians improve their diets and increase their levels of physical activity — two steps recognized by the World Health Organization to help reduce the prevalence of chronic diseases that currently burden the health care system.

Together, poor diets and physical inactivity are estimated to be responsible for $5 billion to $10 billion in health care costs and lost productivity due to premature death and disability, and prematurely claim well in excess of 20,000 lives in Canada each year.

CSPI’s recommendations on how to help improve diets and increase physical activity were endorsed by 10 health and citizens groups, including the National Pensioners and Senior Citizens Federation, Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology, Ontario Society of Nutrition Professionals in Public Health, Canadian Women’s Health Network, and Toronto Food Policy Council. Key proposals to the commission include:

  • conducting an intensive, mass media campaign to promote nutrition and physical activity;
  • prohibiting advertising junk food to children (a ban on all advertising to children has been in force in Québec for two decades);
  • requiring that chain restaurants disclose basic nutrition information, like calories, on menus and menu boards;
  • improving food labelling by requiring nutrition information on fresh meat, poultry and seafood (exempted from recently proposed mandatory nutrition labelling rules), and requiring that processed foods containing fruits, vegetables, whole grains, or added sugars show the percentage, by weight, of those ingredients in ingredient lists;
  • requiring medium and large workplaces to ensure that cafeterias offer healthy menu items, and to enable workers in sedentary desk jobs to get more physical activity;
  • requiring weight loss and fitness programs and products to disclose reliable evidence of their long-term effectiveness and safety;
  • including preventative nutrition counselling services under provincial medicare programs; and
  • requiring provincial governments to ensure students receive bi-weekly nutrition and food preparation classes for at least two years, and daily physical education classes every year.

The World Health Organization’s recent annual “World Health Report“ estimated that in countries like Canada publicly-funded health education campaigns combined with legislative controls on the nutrient content and labelling of processed foods could improve health at a small fraction of the cost per life saved compared to traditional medical screening and drug treatment for high cholesterol and blood pressure. The Auditor General of Canada and many research scientists and economists agree that disease prevention efforts can be as much as seven times more cost-effective than treating illness after it has occurred.

“Reports released recently by the Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology and several provincial governments have stressed the importance of disease prevention through improvements in diet and increases in physical activity, but offered little clear direction on how to effectively tackle the job of helping Canadians take appropriate steps to improve their health by these means,“ said Bill Jeffery, L.LB., national coordinator of CSPI. The measures we advocate provide clear direction to governments and the public health community on how to help Canadians reduce their risk of disease.

CSPI also advised the Commission to urge the federal government to refine existing tax polices — concerning sales tax on foods, and the deductibility of food advertising expenses from taxable corporate income — to make those rules more conducive to health promotion. For example, exempting healthy restaurant foods (such as low fat milk, fruit juice, most salads, and vegetable-based dishes) from GST and applying GST to certain foods sold in grocery stores — such as meat that is high in saturated fat (like fresh regular ground beef) or high in added sugars (such as soft drinks) would help promote healthier diets.

“Minister McLellan’s recent announcement that the Canadian Institutes of Health Research will spend $3 million per year for the next five years on obesity-related research is laudable,“ said Jeffery. However, research is not enough. Unless governments act now to help consumers improve their diets and increase their levels of physical activity, the Canadian economy will lose as much as $25 billion to $50 billion in health care costs and lost productivity during the five-year research period.“

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