Fri | Aug 18, 2017

Editorial | Private sector has stake in obesity fight

Published:Friday | March 31, 2017 | 3:13 AM

Jamaica isn’t the only country hoping to battle an epidemic of obesity, and associated lifestyle diseases, by promoting changes in consumption habits, especially towards sugary foods.

As the health minister, Christopher Tufton, was this week launching a task force to help gain the food industry’s buy-in for the effort, in England, public-health officials were attempting to do the same thing with the confectionery industry, particularly with products that appeal to children.

The upshot of the UK initiative is a recommendation by Public Health England (PHE) that the confectionery industry ­ which had argued that it could be difficult to lower sugar content and maintain taste ­ reduce the sizes of the products, such as sweets, chocolate bars, and the variety of snacks they manufacture.

If the recommendation is implemented across nine food groups, PHE said, it would mean that by 2020, up to 200,000 tonnes of sugar would be removed from a range of snacks and foods sold in England. Expressed another way, that would be nearly twice the amount of sugar that Jamaica has manufactured in recent years.

But PHE projects something far more important: That the number of overweight children would fall by 20 per cent. In England, up to a third of 10- and 11-year-olds are considered to be overweight or obese.

This effort of smaller product sizes, as part of the proposal for a voluntary 20 per cent reduction of sugar in these foods, is not the only front on which the problem is being attacked in Britain. From next year, levies ranging from between £S0.18 and £S0.24 per litre will be imposed on sodas and sugary drinks, in keeping with a growing global trend.

In our hemisphere, in Mexico, one of the world’s largest consumers of sodas, where an estimated 15 per cent of the population suffer from Type 2 diabetes, a levy on these products is credited with a near eight per cent decline in their consumption over the past two years and a two per cent rise in the sale of untaxed products.

Too many of the same problems

Jamaica has lessons from what happens elsewhere in the world. First, we have many of the same problems.

An estimated 60 per cent of the population is either overweight or obese, according to Fitzroy Henry, the University of Technology public-health professor who heads Minister Tufton’s task force. It costs the country more than J$22 billion a year ­ more than a third of the Government’s budget for health ­ to care for patients with associated lifestyle diseases.

Up to a fifth of the deaths from cancers and 30 per cent of heart diseases can be traced back to obesity.

The fact is that the situation represents a public-health epidemic, bordering on a national emergency. But the response can’t be merely government imposition, but rather the result of a broad partnership, including industry.

First, the economic reforms of recent years have led to a growth of import substitution and the strengthening of manufacturing, especially in processed foods. The growth of domestic brands on shelves hints of change. This means more jobs and economic growth.

At the same time, if people are ill and away from their jobs, that saps productivity and undermines the economy, making growth unsustainable. It is in the interest of firms, therefore, that the population is healthy. In this regard, it is good that private interests, including manufacturers, sit on Dr Tufton’s task force and have an input in its recommendations.