We’re in a pinch [reducing salt intake]

TheGlobeandMail.com – Opinions/Editorial
Published on Tuesday, Sep. 15, 2009.  Last updated on Friday, Sep. 18, 2009.

Reducing sodium in the Canadian diet should be a national priority, but Ottawa’s sluggish response suggests it is anything but. The Sodium Working Group, with representatives of government, the food processing industry and medicine, is proposing to take four years to come up with a plan. True, Rome was not built in a day. But this is not Rome.

Someone might send the working group a napkin on which to sketch out a plan. Britain could serve as a model. Reduce salt voluntarily in 80 foods available on grocery shelves by 20 to 30 per cent, over a few years so that the palate does not notice. (No public outcry has greeted these proposed reductions in Britain.) Have a big public-relations campaign – websites, TV commercials – at the same time. Maybe a new labelling system, too. Red light means high salt, yellow medium, and green low. A plan.

The case for making salt reduction a priority is obvious. High blood pressure is widespread (about 20 per cent of Canadians suffer its effects) because salt consumption is so high. High blood pressure and related diseases are the world’s leading cause of death. Children and teens receive far too much salt in their diets, setting the stage for future health problems. Achieving salt reductions of roughly 25 per cent is at least as doable and perhaps as beneficial as fighting obesity. The effect on health – and health-care budgets – could be huge. As much as $2-billion a year could be saved by reducing hypertension linked to salt. The cost of prevention is only a fraction of what it costs to care for heart attack and stroke victims.

Roughly 80 per cent of the salt ingested by Canadians comes from processed food. Consumers need help to reduce salt in their diets. This isn’t a new problem. The alarm has been raised for 10 or 15 years now, doctors say. Britain’s national plan dates from 2003. Finland began reducing salt in the 1970s, and cut death rates from stroke and coronary heart disease by 80 per cent. Life expectancy jumped five to six years.

With health care costs ever-climbing, governments have an extra incentive to do everything possible to prevent disease. Ottawa’s leisurely approach to salt overuse is baffling.

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