Minister of Health John Boyce believes the high rate of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in Barbados and the rest of the Caribbean has its origin in the region’s rich sugar and rum heritage.
Addressing a sub-regional workshop Tuesday on the taxation of alcohol, tobacco and sugar-sweetened beverages, Boyce acknowledged that both commodities had been at the centre of the region’s social and economic development for generations.
Therefore, he told those gathered at Accra Beach Hotel it was not surprising that Caribbean people had cultivated a strong preference for sugary drinks, or that alcohol consumption was a major part of festive occasions.
“These traditional cultural practices which have evolved over time now pose a major threat to our health and wellbeing and to our very survival in the future, if the current trajectory is not altered,” the minister warned.
He pointed to statistics from the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) which showed that heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer were the leading causes of death in the Americas.
However mortality from diabetes and strokes was higher in the Caribbean compared to the rest of the Americas, he explained.
“What is even more worrisome is the fact that more than half of these deaths occur prematurely, or in those aged less than 70 years,” Boyce said.
He said the region was facing an epidemic of NCDs that affected every level of society in some way.
“The burden of NCDs extends beyond what is spent on direct health care costs. Compared to infectious diseases, NCDs are more likely to reduce productivity by interrupting the ability of individuals to fully participate in the labour force and place major constraints on individuals, their caretakers, and ultimately the state,” he said.
In that regard, Boyce called for a “comprehensive and multi-sectoral” approach to tackling the problem.
“Ministries of health alone are limited in how they can effectively reduce the determinants of NCDs. A whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach is what is necessary, especially at this time. Solutions to the NCD problem will require improved collaboration and dialogue between Government and industry, academic institutions, health professionals, civil society, labour unions, financing agencies, other Government sectors and the general public,” Boyce stated.
He noted that for many years, health practitioners had been warning the public of the dangers of unhealthy lifestyles, and of the need to reduce high consumption of salt, sugar and alcohol, and to desist from smoking tobacco. However, he further cautioned that health education alone was not enough to effect behavioural change.
Boyce welcomed Tuesday’s deliberations on the application of taxes on alcohol, tobacco and sugar-sweetened beverages as one effective measure to reduce consumption.
“While the evaluation of our own experience here in Barbados with the tax on sugar sweetened beverages is still ongoing, I believe that the imposition of such a tax sends a strong signal to the population and to the world of our willingness to take action to address the root causes of the obesity problem that we are tackling.”
The Government spokesman acknowledged that such measures would be met with opposition from some quarters. However, he stressed that the State’s role was to protect the health and well-being of citizens.
“Therefore we must use whatever legal and policy measures are at our disposal to make it easier for people to choose a healthy snack, to eat in a smoke-free environment in a restaurant, or for our children to have access to healthy meals in and around schools,” he said.
He reiterated his ministry’s plans to set policy options to address the marketing of unhealthy foods to children at school, including a ban on the sale and promotion of sugar-sweetened drinks on school premises. Those measures will be considered by the Inter-Ministerial Committee on NCDs and subsequently, the full Cabinet, Boyce said.