Editorial | Frank dialogue on the national bulge
Earlier this week, Ruel Reid, the education minister, repeated his intention to end the serving of sugary drinks with meals under the Government's School Feeding Programme, the aim being to improve the nutrition of students, thereby improving their health.
This was followed by the launch of Health Minister Christopher Tufton's National Food Industry Task Force (NFITF), which is to review how Jamaicans eat and suggest ways to improve their diets, with the hope of lessening a raft of non-communicable lifestyle diseases that annually pinch huge sums from taxpayers' pocketbooks.
These initiatives are not entirely new. They have been talked about for many years. They have not, however, had firm, consistent action from governments. That is because the solutions are likely to be politically unpopular.
Politicians, at least, think so. The actions, however, need not be as difficult as they assume, once they are willing to engage in serious conversation with all stakeholders.
While there may be some quibbling over the statistics, Jamaica is on the verge of, if not already in, a public-health crisis with lifestyle diseases. According to Fitzroy Henry, a University of Technology professor of public health who chairs the NFITF, an estimated 60 per cent of adult Jamaicans are obese, an incidence that has been rising at a rate of one percentage point a year for a decade and a half. One study, nearly 10 years ago, showed that among Jamaican children age six to 10, approximately 11 per cent were overweight. Seven per cent were obese.
Last year in Parliament, when he announced a national fitness and lifestyle campaign, Dr Tufton observed that between a fifth and a quarter of most cancers in Jamaican patients, as well as 27 per cent of diabetes and 30 per cent of heart diseases were directly related to people's lifestyles: how they ate and how little they exercised.
Not only are these diseases among the major killers, they suck up a good chunk of the Government's annual health budget for care and drugs. Indeed, most of the approximately J$8 billion spent by the National Health Fund is for drugs to treat obesity and hypertension.
These are largely preventable diseases. For, as Dr Tufton observed in those parliamentary remarks, they are the result of the large amounts of sugars, refined starches and fats consumed by Jamaicans. And with too little exercise.
The problem impacts more than the cost of the health-care budget. It has implications for the wider economy. People who are often ill, and/or hospitalised, can't be at work, or they are unlikely to be at their most productive. This affects labour, efficiency, national output and economic growth.
The issue demands a new national conversation, inclusive of industries whose foods contribute to negative health effects, especially among children. The producers of sugary drinks, a large proportion of whose consumers are children, especially need to be at the table. Increasingly, countries are imposing levies on the products of such industries, which can be avoided by reducing sugar content.
Opening a dialogue on the matter is better than unilateral state action.