Editorial | Mandate for tax on sugary drinks
If the Government was awaiting the public's endorsement before pushing ahead with radical preventative measures against the worsening public health crisis of obesity - including among children - in Jamaica, it need not be detained any longer. At least, with regard to policies to reduce the consumption of sugary drinks, for which children are the major target of marketers.
Last week, Christopher Tufton, the health minister, unveiled the findings of a survey, done in conjunction with The Heart Foundation of Jamaica, showing that not only does the public have great concern about the problem, but it wants to the Government to do something about it. They are particularly concerned about the health of their children.
For instance, while nearly two-thirds (63 per cent) of adults have concerns about the consumption of sodas and other sugar-sweetened drinks on their own health, approximately eight in 10 (79 per cent) shared the sentiment for their children. Significantly, that concern was especially deep for more than a third (34 per cent) of adults.
There is serious cause for worry. Non-communicable diseases (NCDs), largely related to people's lifestyles, especially how they eat and how little they exercise, factor in 78 per cent of deaths in Jamaica. And obesity plays a large part in this, contributing to diseases such as hypertension and diabetes. Treating NCDs is expensive, and is projected to cost the country more than US$17 billion between 2015 and 2030.
Fitzroy Henry, a professor in public health nutrition at Jamaica's University of Technology, who headed a government-appointed task force on the food industry, has estimated that 60 per cent of Jamaicans are overweight or obese, with 200,000 people being added to the number annually. An estimated 26 per cent of the island's 13-15 year olds are overweight, with 10 per cent of them obese.
Sugar-sweetened drinks, whose sale, Minister Tufton reported in February, increased by 40 per cent in each of the two previous years, is a big culprit. A quarter of the parents say that their children had sugary drinks multiple times a day, of which a half (51 per cent) had between three and five, or more, servings daily.
While 36 per cent of parents said their children either rarely or are never served sugary drinks, 61 per cent of all parents are either 'very' or 'extremely' concerned about children's access to the product at school. And perhaps more significant for the Government from a policy perspective, more than seven in 10 adults (72 per cent) said they would support policies to discourage the consumption of sugary drinks and other unhealthy foods. Further, 64 per cent would support a tax on sugary drinks, but that figure rises to nearly eight in 10 persons (78 per cent) if the proceeds of the tax were used to combat obesity.
Governments are minded to opt for the easier stuff. So a low-hanging fruit would be to restrict the sale of sodas and other sugary drinks in school tuck shops and canteens - making schools 'safe zones' from these products.
We also appreciate the need for governments to be mindful of special interests, especially in the face of threats of the loss of jobs and tax revenues. It is in that context that we understand Finance Minister Audley Shaw's urging of voluntary action on the part of drink manufacturers to lower the sugar content of their products.
Voluntary action rarely works and is difficult to police. Agreeing on standards and enforcing them is difficult. That is why countries have increasingly moved to imposing taxes on sugary drinks, as Britain will do from next month, and Barbados has been doing since 2015. (Britain will have a rate of £0.18 per litre on drinks that have five grams of sugar or more per 100 millilitres but will rise to £0.24 per litre if the drink has eight grams of sugar or more per 100ml).
Jamaica should follow them. It would be good public health policy.