03/20/2012 02:11 EDT | Updated 05/20/2012 05:12 EDT

NDP support mandatory phys-ed through Grade 12; Tories worry about the cost

TORONTO - Ontario's Liberal government wouldn't commit Tuesday to adopting a recommendation from two provincial health agencies to make physical education classes mandatory all through high school.

Cancer Care Ontario and Public Health Ontario released a joint report on ways to reduce the province's 79 per cent death rate from various ailments including chronic respiratory disease, cardiovascular diseases, some cancers and diabetes.

"These largely preventable diseases diminish our quality of life, economy and communities," concluded the two health agencies.

"As Ontario’s population increases and gets proportionately older, the rising burden of chronic disease on the health care system will also become unsustainable."

The report called on the province to ban smoking on restaurant patios, increase tobacco taxes and alcohol prices, and make physical education mandatory until Grade 12.

Education Minister Laurel Broten refused to give an opinion on making phys-ed classes mandatory all through high school in order for a student to graduate.

"I look forward to the report and I look to all the advice that we get," Broten told reporters when asked about the recommendation.

"We have a curriculum council that we work with regularly in the province to constantly update and reform our curriculum."

The Opposition said a government facing a $16-billion budget deficit should not be looking at new programs like mandatory phys-ed all through high school.

"We’re on track to a $400-billion debt and I know that provinces and jurisdictions that have big debt chase investment and they chase away jobs," said Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak.

"We can’t afford new big spending programs."

The New Democrats, however, like the idea of mandatory phys-ed, even though party leader Andrea Horwath didn't enjoy taking the classes herself.

"I hated phys-ed in school but it’s something that I had to do, whether I hated it or not, and now of course I have a healthier habit of attending the gym and swimming," said Horwath.

"I think physical exercise and activity is something to encourage in young people, and I don’t have a problem with seeing that happen in Ontario again."

The Ontario Medical Association, which represents the province's doctors, called for mandatory physical education in high schools during last year's election campaign.

The health agencies' report was released on the warmest first day of spring in Ontario history, with people lining up at outside patios to take advantage of the sun and temperatures in the mid-20s.

Those patio patrons should not be allowed to smoke, concluded the report titled Taking Action to Prevent Chronic Disease, which calls for a smoking ban on non-enclosed bar and restaurant patios, with a nine-metre buffer zone around the perimeter of the patio.

Health Minister Deb Matthews said the government's top priority in health care is prevention, but she would not agree to implement the smoking ban on patios.

"I welcome this advice and we’ll examine every recommendation," Matthews said when asked if she would support such a ban.

"We agree that prevention is the best thing we can do."

The report also recommends schools add the development of food skills as a compulsory component of elementary and secondary curricula, so young people are "competent in food preparation."

The two health agencies found that 20.3 per cent of Ontarians age 20 and older smoke while 21.7 per cent of people 18 or older drink more alcohol than recommended.

Sixty per cent of men and 45 per cent of women in Ontario are overweight or obese.

Almost half — 49.2 per cent — of Ontarians aged 12 or older report being inactive during their leisure time.

Ontarians who live in the poorest or rural neighbourhoods, have less than high school education, or identify as First Nations, Inuit or Metis are more likely to be smokers and-or obese.