Experts call for Quebec to tax sugary beverages as Montreal council weighs motion

Click to play video: 'Effort to tax sugary drinks resurfaces in Montreal'
Effort to tax sugary drinks resurfaces in Montreal
WATCH: Montreal city councillors could ask the province to start taxing sugary drinks, in a motion before city council as early as next week. It's not the first time the issue has been raised, but COVID-19 has put public health front and centre for politicians and the public. Global’s Benson Cook reports – Nov 10, 2020

With Quebec’s fiscal update due in just two days’ time, a group of experts are calling on the province to use it to take a new step: taxing sugary drinks.

The Coalition québécoise sur la problématique du poids (CQPP) organized a webinar Tuesday morning featuring several leading experts on the subject. All of them called on the province to implement a tax on beverages containing added sugar.

Whereas the evidence in support of such taxes was lacking in the past, the CQPP’s director, Corinne Voyer, said that’s changed in recent years.

“Today, everything is clear: we know which beverages to target. We also know that it’s working, and now it’s only depending on the policy wheel,” she said during the webinar.

Read more: Quebec to provide economic update in November amid coronavirus crisis

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Montreal city councillors could soon join the movement: they will vote next week on a motion in support of a sugary-drink tax. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s not the first time council has voted on the idea: Snowdon Coun. Marvin Rotrand presented a similar motion in the weeks following the last municipal elections in 2017.

Rotrand is again the one behind this updated motion, but he says there are signs it could actually become a reality this time. Chief among them: the COVID-19 pandemic, which has thrust the importance of public health to the top of the public’s minds.

“Just the consumption of sugary beverages in Quebec costs the treasury $3 billion a year in health costs,” Rotrand said, “and that doesn’t include those whose quality of life is reduced.”

Ensemble Montréal and Projet Montréal were unable to confirm to Global News how their councillors planned to vote, but Rotrand said he expected them to support it, since, he says, they have for past motions on the matter.

In 2017, city council passed a vague motion calling on the federal and provincial governments to study the idea of taxing sugary drinks. It also committed the city to removing sugary beverages entirely from vending machines in municipal buildings.

Rotrand said that process is well underway.

“The city has begun to do that, our contracts are expiring with providers,” he said. “They’re long-term three- to five-year contracts, and we’re not renewing them.

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“We’re hoping that by 2021-22 the City of Montreal will not be offering sugary beverages at all to the population.”

Read more: Montreal moves to ban sale of sugary drinks inside city buildings

Critically, municipalities, including the City of Montreal, do not have the power to levy consumption taxes like the one being proposed in the motion. That’s why council will instead vote to call on the Quebec government to institute a sugary-drink tax provincewide.

If Quebec were to implement such a tax, it would be a North American first. In the past decade, the U.S. cities of San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley and Albany in California, as well as Philadelphia, have all instituted taxes on sugary drinks, and Mexico took a similar step at the national level in 2014.

However, no state or province has taken that step.

Another thing setting next week’s motion apart: it calls for a specific amount — specifically, 20 cents per litre. When factoring in existing sales taxes, that would raise the price of a $2.09, 591-millilitre bottle of Diet Pepsi to $2.52.

There is no clear sign the Quebec government is interested in heeding any calls from experts or city councils to tax drinks, however. Global News asked junior health minister Lionel Carmant’s office if he supported the idea, but didn’t hear back by deadline.

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But experts, including economist Antoine Genest-Gregoire, say Quebec should take the opportunity to lead the way on something that could soon become the norm.

“In general, taxes are much less popular before they’re introduced. And once people introduce them, they tend to fade from people’s minds,” he said. “Income tax was very unpopular when it was introduced, and now if you advocate for getting rid of it people will call you a lunatic.”

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