TORONTO – The chocolate bar wrapper bears an ominous message.
“Chocolate seriously increases your risk of obesity. Chocolate may kill you!” it reads in black letters on a bright yellow background.
On nearby shelves, bags of chips and bottles of cola carry similar warnings – all part of a campaign by a self-described libertarian student group decrying what it considers overly protective government regulations.
The group, Students For Liberty Canada, has made over a north Toronto store to show shoppers what would happen if cigarette-style packaging were applied to junk food.
The display, which will be open to the public between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. Thursday, is titled the “Nanny State Store.”
The project comes after documents obtained by The Canadian Press showed the federal government has weighed the possibility of a tax on soft drinks.
“We’re looking to have people come by the store and get a glimpse of what it’s like if the government is going to hold your hand through life, over-tax, over-regulate, over-ban everything that’s bad for your health,” said the group’s co-ordinator, David Clement.
“The point is to ask Canadians (whether) we need a nanny state or big government telling us how to live our lives or should adults be free to choose when it comes to what they put in their own bodies, what they eat, what they drink.”
The group is the Canadian arm of an international network of libertarian students, and Clement said it comprises around 1,000 members at universities in Ontario, Quebec, Prince Edward Island and British Columbia.
And it’s not just nutrition advice they object to.
“Whether it is adding additional taxes on pop, proposing to put graphic labels on alcohol, or plain packaging tobacco products, more laws are being passed that limit consumer choice, and curb individual freedoms,” the organization said in a statement.
Consumers should be allowed to make decisions about their health unencumbered by taxes or warnings, it argues.
But David Hammond, a public health professor at the University of Waterloo, said people do not necessarily have the information they need to make educated decisions about what they put in their bodies.
“We throw a lot of numbers and grams and milligrams at people and we know that lots of people look at (nutrition) labels but most of them don’t understand the context for those numbers,” said Hammond.
Instead, consumers tend to fall back on common misconceptions when they go shopping, like believing that muffins or granola bars are healthy snacks – which, Hammond said, they are not.
Many people believe it’s healthy to drink fruit juice but there’s as much sugar in a bottle of orange juice as there is in a soft drink, he said. And thanks to the popularity of energy drinks, sports drinks and vitamin water, people are drinking more calories than ever, he added.
What’s more, few consumers are aware of all the dangers of unhealthy eating and drinking.
“A lot people would (link) sugar and cavities and sugar and weight,” Hammond said. “But I would suggest that a minority of Canadians are familiar with the link between obesity and cancer,” said Hammond.
“Whether it’s taxation or dedicated nutrition labels, I think the goal is to respond to the public health issue in terms of us drinking too many calories and secondly to correct some really prevalent misconceptions.”