Editorial

Let's unite to fight the obesity plague

Friday, June 08, 2018

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The Government has taken the sensible approach in giving at least six months' notice that it will, starting in January 2019, enforce restrictions on the use of sugary drinks in the diets of students and public health patients as part of efforts to combat growing obesity in the country.

Health Minister Dr Christopher Tufton, who made the announcement in Parliament on Tuesday, also said that his ministry, as well as the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information, will begin meeting with manufacturers and distributors of sugary drinks next week to provide the policy guidelines on the requirements for the products to be allowed in use.

If those manufacturers share similar concerns for the well-being of Jamaicans as Mr Gary “Butch” Hendrickson, the chairman and CEO of National Baking Company; and Mr Lascelles Chin, the founder and executive chairman of LASCO Affiliated Companies, then there should not be any resistance to the Administration's decision.

Mr Hendrickson is well down the wicket on reducing the volume of sugar in his baked products. In fact, we remember quite well that at the launch of his company's 'Balance Your Life' campaign last November Mr Hendrickson reported that National has reduced the sugar in its bread formula by 33 per cent.

Mr Chin is on equal footing, having introduced low sugar variants in his flagship LASCO Food Drink range, which the company said contains “50 per cent less sugar than the original products”.

No one can contest the argument that obesity is a big problem in Jamaica. The 2017 National Council on Drug Abuse/Jamaica School Health Survey uncovered that the obesity rate among adolescents has increased since 2010 — when the last survey was conducted — and there are no changes in the consumption of fast foods and sugary drinks.

The 2017 survey, which measured behavioural risk and protective factors among 1,667 students 13 to 17 years old in 41 schools islandwide, found that 24 per cent (400) were overweight and nine per cent (150) were obese.

The survey also found that more girls fared worse that boys, with 28 per cent of females being overweight and 10 per cent being obese, as opposed to 20 per cent of males being overweight and nine per cent obese.

Other stunning findings of the study were that 68 per cent of participating students admitted drinking carbonated drinks one or more times per day, more than 50 per cent ate fast foods one or more days per week, and 20 per cent spent more than eight hours per day sitting.

Earlier this year, when we reported the findings of the survey, bariatric surgeon Dr Alfred Dawes argued that schools play a major role in the obesity problem by granting fast food restaurants concessions to run their canteens.

That, we believe, is one of the factors that the Government will need to tackle in tandem with its focus on Nutrition Products Limited, the State-owned entity mandated to “produce and distribute nutritious meals to designated schoolchildren at the lowest possible cost”.

For the truth is that sugary drinks are not the sole contributors to obesity. Poor eating habits help to create, and exacerbate, the problem. Therefore, if the Government's effort is to have any effect, it will need the support of all Jamaicans.

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