Mon | Dec 11, 2017

More taxes for bad habits - CARICOM health experts call for high levy on deadly lifestyle choices

Published:Thursday | July 6, 2017 | 12:49 AM

In 40 years, life expectancy in Jamaica only increased by five years, compared to some CARICOM nations, which have seen dramatic improvements. This, as the epidemic of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as diabetes, hypertension, cancer, kidney disease, stroke, and heart disease worsens across some Caribbean countries, according to health experts.

"All countries in the Caribbean have gained life expectancy, but some have gained a lot more," Dr Alafia Samuels told CARICOM heads of government in Grenada yesterday.

Samuels is the director of The George Alleyne Chronic Disease Research Centre based at the Cave Hill campus of the University of the West Indies in Barbados.

"The countries that have gained the most life expectancy over the past 40 years would be

like Martinique and Guadeloupe, both of whom have increased their life expectancy by 15 years. Haiti also increased by 15 years," she said.

Two of the more advanced economies - Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago - saw their life expectancy grow by five years between 1970 and 2010, according to a study by the centre.

In 1970, Jamaica's life expectancy at birth was 67.5 years. It is now 72.2 years. Trinidad's has moved from 64.8 years to 69.3 years. Life expectancy varies from 61 years in Haiti to 75 years in Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, and The Bahamas.

The "unfortunate" situation in Jamaica and Trinidad, the researcher stressed, has not been caused by violence. "It is because people are dying of heart attack and strokes because people's diets are unhealthy. They are not moving. They are smoking and drinking alcohol," she said.

Samuels was the principal investigator in a multidisciplinary team that evaluated the historic 2007 Port-of-Spain Declaration on NCDs. The findings were presented to the regional leaders at the 38th heads of government conference. They are expected to decide today - the final day - on the way forward in tackling the epidemic.

 

NO COUNTRY ACHIEVED TARGET

 

While the region deliberates, however, Samuels' team argues that increased taxation on tobacco, alcohol, and certain foods and drinks such as sugar-sweetened beverages is one of the major ways to curb the problem.

Regarding tobacco, for example, the report - done in partnership with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Pan American Health Organisation - notes that regional states are lagging in imposing taxes at 75 per cent of the sale price of cigarettes.

The report says that no CARICOM country has achieved the target. Currently, rates of taxation range from 17 per cent to 63 per cent. The ban on promotion, it added, has seen "little progress". So, too, has been the implementation of graphic cigarette packet labelling.

Grenada, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago were studied, and the report said that revenue from increasing taxes on tobacco and alcohol could amount to more than US$37 million, far exceeding the estimated US$13 million cost of the WHO's 'best buy' NCD intervention.

 

BALANCE NEEDED

 

Grenada's health minister, Nicholas Steele, said that the issue of taxation has to be addressed but noted that a balance has to be struck.

"In most Caribbean territories, sometimes it's not just simply the higher the tax, the greater the deterrent. At a certain point, increasing taxation doesn't necessarily decrease the use of the product. We have to make sure there is an accessible alternative," he told a press briefing.

Samuels said that the Caribbean leaders have to act, especially given the heavy importation of food and the report's observation that since 2007, targets relating to diet, schools, and communications were the least met.

"We have disposable income in the Caribbean. We have food security. We do not have food sovereignty," she said.

jovan.johnson@gleanerjm.com