Editorial | Curbing sweet tooth
The sugar debate is heating up in Jamaica and elsewhere in the world. Public-health advocates want to see policies implemented that will nudge consumers towards a healthier lifestyle.
Parents, too, are convinced that sodas and other sweetened beverages are the primary source of added sugar in their children's diet. Indeed, it's an encouraging signal that parents want to place their children on the right nutritional path early.
Decades of research have documented the harm associated with consuming sugary drinks. Sugar consumption is linked to a long list of health problems, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease and hypertension, as well as dental caries.
Health Minister Dr Christopher Tufton can confidently go ahead and recommend to his Cabinet colleagues to consider a tax on sugary drinks because a significant number of Jamaicans are behind him. The minister announced that a recent public survey found that 62 per cent supported the implementation of a tax on sugary drinks.
But despite this overwhelming support, there are many levels of arguments in this ongoing sugar debate. Chief among them is the economic argument. Sweetened beverages are big business, employing hundreds of people and paying taxes. The argument is that reduced demand for their products will lead to a decline in business and workers may lose jobs.
The Government argues that it has to bear substantial costs for much of its health budget is spent on treating non-communicable diseases brought on by obesity. It, therefore, makes sense for Government to levy taxes on these sugar beverages to raise revenue and reduce consumption.
On the consumer side, there is the indisputable evidence that many of the healthy options that now exist are prohibitive to the poor. For example, a bottle of water in some outlets is more expensive than a soda.
We submit that the debate should not be presented as an all-or-nothing situation.
For example, we do not think the authorities should be posturing as if the intention is to punish manufacturers. A better approach would be to get everyone in on the discussion to see what adjustments or modifications can be made to balance the challenges of health and the economy. Manufacturers, consumers, healthcare advocates and the Government should all be seated at the table.
Then there are those who appear not to be defending the value of sugary drinks, but rather the idea that people should be free to make their choice, even if it is an unhealthy one.
Do sugary drinks send a signal that other food choices once deemed harmful could be taxed out of reach of the ordinary man? There are those who argue that tomorrow, it could be bacon or ice cream. So the argument goes, where does it end?
Steam for the sugar debate picked up after the World Health Organization's technical meeting of experts in Switzerland in 2015. The meeting looked at fiscal policies which could help to curtail the consumption of sweetened beverages.
The Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Non-communicable Diseases 2013-2020 proposed that "as appropriate to national context, countries consider the use of economic tools that are justified by evidence, and may include taxes and subsidies, to improve access to healthy dietary choices and create incentives for behaviours associated with improved health outcomes and discourage the consumption of less healthy options".
It is desirable for Jamaicans to endorse any campaign that is designed to make people live better, healthier lives. We suggest that as an indication of its commitment, Government should limit sugary drinks in schools, hospitals and clinics and state buildings.
In the end, however, Government can do so much. The rest is up to us to make those behavourial changes for a healthy life.