Caribbean people love their soda. In fact, people in this region consume twice the amount of the sugary drinks that individuals elsewhere do.
But it is leading to an unhealthy society marked by early and preventable deaths due to illnesses such as diabetes and hypertension, according to a report on the evaluation of the implementation of the 2007 Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Heads of Government Port of Spain Non-Communicable Diseases (NCD) Summit Declaration.
“The Caribbean drinks the most soft drinks of anywhere in the world. Per capita, we drink on average two soft drinks per person per day. Nowhere else drinks that number of soft drinks,” said Dr Alafia Samuels, the lead investigator for the evaluation, supported by CARICOM, the World Health Organization (WHO), and Pan American Health Organization (PAHO).
“So, [that is] perhaps one of the reasons why the Prime Minister of Barbados [Freundel Stuart] was the first in the region to introduce a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. And, we’re hoping that more countries in the region will follow this,” she added.
WHO data show that the average can of sugary drink contains about 10 teaspoons of sugar. The recommended sugar intake is 25 grammes (six teaspoons) per day.
The evaluation report was presented at the just-concluded meeting of regional heads of government in Grenada. The soft drink issue was raised as one of the main contributions to the increased risks for NCDs in the context where CARICOM members are lagging in addressing diet issues.
According to Samuels, who heads the George Alleyne Chronic Disease Research Centre at the University of the West Indies, “our risk factor profile across the region is poor, and among children, it’s even more worrisome.”
The soda drinking problem in the CARICOM subgroup fits in the high-consumption culture in the wider Latin American region. Central America, the Caribbean, and northern South America are the only places where people average well over a cup of soda or other sweetened drinks a day, the Washington Post reported in 2015, based on a study published that year.
The situation has helped to give the Caribbean the distinction of having the highest mortality rate from NCDs in the Americas. Over 40 per cent of those deaths are premature.
It is estimated that around 39 per cent of adults were overweight in 2014, and 13 per cent were obese. Some 42 million children under age five were also either overweight or obese.
Additionally, from 2011 to 2030, the WHO estimates gross domestic product loses – indirect and direct – due to diabetes will be US$900 billion-US$1.7 trillion in high income countries and US$800 billion in low and middle income countries.
Health experts told reporters Wednesday that the NCD epidemic, which includes diabetes, hypertension, cancer, kidney disease, stroke and heart disease, worsened across some Caribbean countries as the region observed the 10th anniversary of the landmark Port of Spain Declaration.
“All countries in the Caribbean have gained life but some have gained a lot more,” said Dr Samuels.
“The countries that have gained the most life over the past 40 years would be like Martinique and Guadeloupe — both of whom have increased their life expectancy by 15 years. Haiti also increased by 15 years.”
But two of the more advanced CARICOM countries, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, saw their life expectancy increase by five years between 1970 and 2010, according to a study done by the centre.
In 1970, Jamaica’s life expectancy at birth was 67.5 years. It is now 72.2 years. Trinidad’s has moved from 64.8 years to 69.3 years, while life expectancy varies from 61 years in Haiti, to 75 years in Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados and the Bahamas.
Samuels said the unfortunate situation in Jamaica and Trinidad was not caused by violence, adding “it is because people are dying of heart attack and strokes, because peoples’ diets are unhealthy; they are not moving, they are smoking and drinking alcohol”.
CARICOM leaders who ended their 38th annual summit in Grenada on Thursday are expected to decide on the way forward in tackling the epidemic. But researchers argue that increased taxation on tobacco, alcohol and certain food and drinks, such as sugar-sweetened beverages, is one of the major ways to curb the problem.
Regarding tobacco, for example, the report noted that regional states are lagging in imposing taxes at 75 per cent of the sale price of cigarettes.
The report said no CARICOM country has achieved the target. Currently, rates of taxation range from 17 per cent to 63 per cent. The ban on promotion, it added, has seen “little progress”. So too has been the implementation of graphic cigarette packet labelling.
Grenada, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago were studied, and the report said revenue from increasing taxes on tobacco and alcohol could amount to more than US$37 million, far exceeding the estimated US$13 million cost of the WHO’s “best buy” NCD intervention.
But Grenada’s Health Minister Nicholas Steele says a balance has to be struck on the issue of taxation.
“In most Caribbean territories, sometimes it’s not just simply the higher the tax, the greater the deterrent. At a certain point, increasing taxation doesn’t necessarily decrease the use of the product. We have to make sure there is an accessible alternative,” he told reporters.
Dr Samuels said Caribbean leaders have to act, especially given the heavy importation of food and the report’s observation that since 2007, targets relating to diet, schools and communications were the least met.
“We have disposable income in the Caribbean; we have food security; we do not have food sovereignty,” she said.