When all is said and done, there is hardly anyone living in Barbados who can honestly say that they have not been exposed, at some time or another in recent years, to repeated warnings about the rising incidence of obesity and the associated long-term implications for the nation’s well-being.
For whatever reason, which ought to be made the subject of enquiry, it seems that these warnings somehow are falling on deaf ears. Barbadians are not making lifestyle changes on the scale required to reverse the current trend in what appears to be a senseless march towards self-destruction.
Two years ago, a leading international publication gave Barbados the unflattering distinction of having the fattest women in the world. The Economist Pocket World of Figures 2014 said 57.2 per cent of Barbadian women were considered obese, putting Barbados way ahead of the United States where the figure was 48.3 per cent.
It was followed by a forecast last year by the local Heart and Stroke Foundation, based on analysis of current data, that two out of every three Barbadian women are likely to be obese by 2025. These figures paint quite an alarming picture considering the undeniable link between obesity and chronic non-communicable diseases.
These illnesses, including diabetes and hypertension, are largely lifestyle-related and have been wreaking havoc on the local population. However, as if the problem with our women is not enough, we are now confronted by the grim reality that obesity too among children is approaching epidemic proportions.
To help save our children, eminent medical practitioner, Sir Trevor Hassell, who chairs the Commission on Chronic Non-Communicable Diseases, called last week for a ban to be placed on the sale of soft drinks in schools and also for an end to sponsorship of school events by companies associated with unhealthy foods.
Dr Hassell’s call, at a symposium for secondary school students, came after he cited data suggesting that a third of Barbadian children are obese. Lifestyle changes related to a higher level of economic development and national prosperity over the last three decades are obvious culprits in the obesity epidemic.
They have seen Barbadians move away from traditional diets to meals that emphasize convenience like fast foods Additionally, Barbadians today are less physically active than past generations. If persons are consuming more calories than they are using up, obesity is an obvious consequence.
What more can be done to address this worrying situation which does not augur well for the future of our nation? While we believe that every individual has the right to make choices as to the kind of life he or she wishes to lead, there are times, however, when it becomes necessary to save the individual from himself or herself.
In such cases, we believe the state has a duty to intervene decisively especially if the consequences of those choices extend way beyond the individual and have national implications, as is clearly the case here. A more aggressive public policy response is therefore needed. However, it is our view that it should be pursued through consultation with the relevant stakeholders with the aim of arriving at a consensus.
Last year, Government imposed a ten per cent excise tax on soft drinks and other sweetened beverages. Many advocates of healthy eating had hoped at the time that this measure would have caused a major drop in the consumption of these products. A year later, Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler has acknowledged that the measure had not had a noticeable impact. Perhaps, there is a lesson to be learned from the policy response to smoking that has led to a significant decline in cigarette sales.
Behavioural change is necessary to making significant headway in reversing the obesity epidemic. What the authorities may wish to consider is a sustained social marketing campaign targeting women and children in particular but also men. Such interventions have proved effective elsewhere in the case of other health-related issues.
We badly need, for example, to change the idea of many children that food is not what is cooked at home but what is bought at some outlet. We also need to get more young adults to eat a healthy breakfast at home instead of settling for a soft drink and high calorie pastry on their way to work.
We also need to promote the formation of community exercise groups to encourage more Barbadians to go walking, for example, either on mornings or evenings. We need too to encourage parents to get more children involved in outdoor activities instead of watching television or playing video games indoors.
Such activities and more can be the focus of a social marketing campaign. We need to get cracking.