Editorial | Child obesity crisis looms
They may be the most vocal, opinionated and, often, the most stubborn among us, but their choices are limited, or driven, like their lives, in the direction that their parents move. Therein lies the potential for fixing, or heading off, another looming health crisis in Jamaica and the Caribbean – obesity among children. Obesity is among the gateways to a raft of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), which have reached almost epidemic proportions in the region.
Already, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 36 per cent, or almost four of every one of Jamaican children between 13 and 15 are overweight or obese, placing them at increased risk for Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers – the kinds of conditions which the WHO says causes up to 80 per cent of deaths in Jamaica annually. The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated the vulnerability of people living with NCDs.
Treating NCDs is expensive. It is far cheaper and easier to prevent these diseases. But that requires people being continuously provided with information about healthy lifestyle choices, including diet and exercise, and government policies that increase access to affordable, tasty nutrition and counter the myth that unhealthy foods are cheap.
In this regard, Dr Christopher Tufton, the health minister, is on the right track. As part of an initiative to reduce obesity in children, he has moved, in conjunction with the education ministry, to ban the sale of sugary drinks in schools. But Dr Tufton has made the case that obesity in children isn’t only a problem for physical health. It also has implications for their mental health.
“If we take overweight or obesity among the young, for example, not only are there financial implications, there can also be psychological implications,” Tufton wrote in an opinion article in The Gleaner, adding: “Counted among them are depression, anxiety and poor self-esteem. Obese youngsters can, too, face social problems, including bullying, stigma, poor socialisation, as well as reduced educational attainment. What is more, research has shown that childhood obesity will leave a permanent imprint on adult health.”
Access to healthy food, coupled with safe and conducive outdoor spaces for children to play, and overall healthy lifestyle practices will go a long way to arrest incidences of obesity in children. Another piece of this jigsaw is marketing of food products to children.
“Protecting Jamaican children and adolescents from unhealthy food marketing is a most cost-effective way to improve their chances of living longer, healthier lives while simultaneously reducing the soaring healthcare costs associated with NCDs,” said Deborah Chen, executive director of the Heart Foundation of Jamaica.
Moreover, healthy lifestyle advocates insist that protecting children from non-communicable diseases isn’t only a moral issue, but a legal obligation. For example, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child explicitly states that it is children’s fundamental right to a healthy childhood, free from economic exploitation. Article 24, Section 2(c) states: “To combat disease and malnutrition, including within the framework of primary healthcare, through, inter alia, the application of readily available technology and through the provision of adequate nutritious foods and clean drinking water, taking into consideration the dangers and risks of environmental pollution.”
We recognise that sustainably fixing Jamaica’s NCDs crisis and lessening the risks these diseases pose to children includes unravelling complex entanglements. In other words, hard choices will be on the table for the Government, the private sector and healthy lifestyle advocates. The question of implementation of easy-to-read and easy-to-be-understood front-of-package warning labels remains a thorny matter on which the Government has been slow to act.
Dr Tufton recently launched with the education ministry a nutrition policy for children and schools. Maybe this is an opportunity to press the reset button and begin anew, without hubris, a robust conversation on implementing best practices. These discussions must have as their premise that the crisis is real and upon us. And becoming worse. There is no time for shilly-shallying.