Guest Blog: Dr. Norm Campbell talks about reducing the sodium in our diets

Heart disease and stroke are among the most common causes of death and disability in Canadians.  As a doctor who commonly sees the personal and family despair, disability and death caused by heart disease, kidney disease and stroke, I have always strongly supported programs that prevent these illnesses and especially those that would also reduce health care costs.  Unhealthy foods (those that are high in calories, fats, salt and free sugars) are roughly responsible for 1 in 3 deaths in Canada; is the major cause of  Canadian children and adults becoming obese; and the best available data suggests such foods are the major cause of 8 in 10 people developing hypertension (6 million Canadians). 

In my opinion, the federal government’s poor regulation of our food products is almost completely responsible for the massive burden of death, disability and health costs associated with unhealthy eating.  The World Health Organization, United Nations and many scientific and health organizations have documented the types of policies and regulations we need to improve national eating patterns. In Canada, we have had an almost complete failure to act while other national governments around the globe are developing policies and regulations to protect their citizens. Over the last 6 years, federal government programs have asked Canadians’ to improve their dietary choices and also asking the food industry to make voluntary changes to their food products.  Unfortunately, individual Canadians making poor dietary choice is not the problem and asking the food industry to voluntarily reduce sodium in our foods has been shown repeatedly around the world to have little impact unless the government closely monitors the food industry. 

Increased blood pressure is the leading risk for death and disability worldwide and will be the subject of World Health Day in 2013. Reducing the amount of salt (sodium) added to foods has been recognized by the World Health Organization as one of the most effective ways to reduce blood pressure and prevent cardiovascular disease and could result in 2 million Canadians with hypertension having normal blood pressure.  Reducing dietary sodium may also improve other important diseases such as stomach cancer, osteoporosis, asthma, obesity, and kidney stones.  Also important is that reducing dietary sodium would save our health care system billions of dollars and help keep it sustainable.

Major national health and scientific organizations in Canada have called for an effective sodium reduction program since 2007 and in 2012 their presidents have written a strong letter to Prime Minister Harper calling for action.  Recently the Ontario Medical Association has been taking a very public and strong stand.  The Premiers and Provincial and Territorial Health Ministers from across Canada have also agreed and indicated reducing dietary sodium is a health priority.  The food industry in a Sodium Work Group Report publically agreed to a comprehensive closely monitored salt reduction program.  Based on constitutional responsibility, all have requested Federal Government leadership for a closely monitored and overseen comprehensive sodium reduction program.  Most importantly, government sponsored surveys indicate that most Canadians want the Federal Government to get involved and oversee an effective sodium reduction program.

As the HSFC, CIHR Chair in Hypertension Prevention and Control, I encourage Federal politicians across all parties to set aside political ideology and do what is needed to protect and preserve the health of Canadians by introducing effective policies and regulations so Canadians can have a healthy food supply. Having healthy food available for all Canadians should be a strong national value.  A part of protecting and improving the health of Canadians includes supporting the passing of Bill C-460 to enact an effective sodium reduction strategy in Canada.  

Norm Campbell, MD FRCPC

Professor of Medicine, Community Health Sciences, Physiology and Pharmacology, the University of Calgary, Canada

Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada (HSFC), Canadian Institute for Health Research (CIHR) Chair in Hypertension Prevention and Control

Co-Chair, PAHO-WHO Technical Advisory Group to mobilize cardiovascular disease prevention through dietary salt control policies and interventions