DLSPH researchers find Canada scores poorly on tobacco and child poverty compared to the UK

October 29/2018

By Françoise Makanda, Communications Officer at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health

Arjumand Siddiqi has compared public health indicators between Canada and other countries for many years, with a focus on the United States and Canada.

In a recent study, she supported researchers Alexandra Blair and DLSPH Professor Emeritus John Frank in conducting a similar study between Canada and the United Kingdom. Although Canada did well in six of the eight report card indicators, Canada’s performance in labour market and tax policies to reduce child poverty and controls of health hazards like the consumption of tobacco was dismal.

“We are doing well on things that don’t really ask the government to go very deep into its pockets or on measures tailored specifically for low-income populations,” said Siddiqi, an Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Canada Research Chair in Population Health Equity at DLSPH.

Canada did well in a host of other indicators, including sexual and reproductive health, early learning and childcare, universal secondary and higher education, access to high-quality education, and economic development policies for employment.

“Our article aims to be a wake-up call for Canadians. We tend to think of Canada as a very fair society, valuing social equity,” said John Frank, Chair of Public Health Research and Policy at the University of Edinburgh.

Canada’s performance in labour market and tax policies to reduce child poverty and controls of health hazards like the consumption of tobacco was dismal.

“We tend to think of Canada as a fair society that values social equity, but our study shows Canada is not doing well on child poverty and tobacco, not even as well as a Conservative-led Britain. Social activists and public health professionals can and should advocate for more effective policies in these areas.”

Canada’s failure in addressing child poverty is surprising since the welfare of a mother is inherently passed down to her child, an observation that even the authors acknowledged. In fact, the study highlights a significant upward trend in child poverty prevalence.

“Single women who are poor are not making enough money to get out of poverty. These days, the market is filled with unstable and precarious jobs, most of which low-income workers occupy,” said Siddiqi.

Another source of stress is the government itself. Typically, governments — including in the UK — tend to provide supplemental income for low-income earners. These initiatives recognize that there is an inherent unfairness in how wages are distributed and how workers are compensated.

Canada does this too but offers far less than its counterparts. A series of policies in the 1990s resulted in the government scaling back welfare programs. Applicants were forced to meet new criteria as additional eligibility requirements for income supplement were introduced within that decade.

Canada also scored poorly in tobacco consumption despite its numerous and well-known smoking cessation programs and campaigns. Siddiqi believes that the adoption of tobacco is inherently related to income.

“We are finding that smoking is a result of stresses of everyday life like low wage jobs, lack of government support and precarious employment. It’s a way to cope with stress.”

When comparing both countries, Siddiqi believes that the UK is more successful in its redistributive policies like its income supplement programs. Canada could take some notes, though both countries could do far better.

“We have been going backwards in many respects. I think we have to figure out a way to encourage people to mobilize their political voice and vote in order to bring in political parties that will promote equity-oriented policies and that’s a challenge. The people who are most affected have the least time energy and political clout to give to this issue,” she says.

This study was supported financially by a Canadian Institute of Health Research Michael Smith Foreign Study Supplement, a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship, a core grant of the Scottish Collaboration for Public Health Research Policy, and the United Kingdom’s Medical Research Council.