Mon | Oct 25, 2021

Letter of the Day | Put people, rather than trade interests first

Published:Monday | September 27, 2021 | 12:05 AM

THE EDITOR, Madam:

We write in response to the article by Minister Audley Shaw in The Gleaner of September 24, titled ‘Front-of-package labelling in Jamaica: A policy perspective’ .

An unhealthy food environment, where food labels are lacking or difficult to understand, has contributed to an epidemic of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in Jamaica, resulting in considerable death and disability (only heightened by COVID-19), and heavy economic burden.

The ‘high in’ black octagonal, front-of-package label (FOPL) has proven to be the most effective in encouraging healthier food choices, and therefore, one would anticipate that the Government of Jamaica (GOJ) would readily support this public health measure. Unfortunately, this has not been the case. Minister Shaw has outlined the reasons why the GOJ ultimately rejected the model proposed by CARICOM Regional Organisation for Standards and Quality.

There are several unanswered questions that we would like Minister Shaw to address in the interest of public health:

1. Why is the GOJ ignoring evidence from its own health ministry and a leading global health organisation – the PAHO/MOHW/UTech study, which found that Jamaican consumers chose the ‘high in’ black octagon as being the most easily understood and therefore the most effective model? Who will benefit from this? Certainly, not the Jamaican consumers.

2. With an agency such as the Consumer Affairs Commission (CAC) under its remit, shouldn’t the Ministry of Industry, Investment and Commerce (MIIC) also be protecting the interests of Jamaican consumers rather than the economic interests of the producers? What has MIIC done to support consumers in relation to FOPL?

3. Why was an irregular meeting of the National Mirror Committee held on June 4, which facilitated a “revote” when the vote had already taken place on March 30, where the result was 4:1 in favour of the ‘high in’ model? In a process that lacked transparency, that irregular meeting, called at short notice, without an agenda, resulted in three government agencies (SRC, CAC and NCRA) no longer supporting the High In’ model, along with the National Consumers’ League of Jamaica.

4. What role did the MIIC have in facilitating this revote?

5. Why is the role of the MOHW being usurped in this matter by MIIC? FOPL is a public health tool.

Justifications suggested in the article focused primarily on trade and profit rather than health, which is the objective of FOPL. For example, allowing multiple models of FOPL will only cause confusion, and the health objective of FOPL will not be achieved.

Pro-development discussions

As we strive to recover from the health and economic impacts of COVID-19, pro-development discussions must prioritise a healthy population, and health must be included in all policies. It is instructive that world trade agreements allow for countries to implement public health measures that may have trade implications when there is a clear public health goal.

The long-term implications of NCDs play a pivotal role in the balance between health and the economy. The GOJ expends US$170 million each year fighting NCDs, nearly 15 per cent of the MOHW annual health budget, and projections suggest that cardiovascular disease and diabetes alone could cost the country J$77.15b over 15 years (2017-2032). Investing in NCD prevention can curtail economic losses in healthcare, medical costs, labour productivity, and even has the potential to grow GDP. A healthy population can support business and grow our economy more than sick people can.

Surely, this far outweighs the initial impact on a few business interests. It is the GOJ’s responsibility to anticipate tactics designed to stave off public health measures and to defend the rights of the population.

We ask the GOJ to reconsider its position in the interest of the health of the population and to implement effective, evidence-based FOPL, if they are truly interested in putting people first.

DR ANDRENE CHUNG

Consultant Cardiologist

Chair, The Heart Foundation of Jamaica

ghapjm@gmail.com