As health officials step up efforts to tackle increasing rates of obesity among Barbadians, one health advocate has been pushing for a comprehensive public education campaign on the need to reduce consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, even while pressing for an increase in the tax on such beverages.
Professor Alafia Samuels recently addressed the issue during a lecture at the UWI Cave Hill campus, organised by the George Alleyne Chronic Disease Research Centre.
Speaking on the topic: Confronting the Epidemic of Obesity – is Sugar the new Tobacco? Professor Samuels said research has shown that in 2010, 33 per cent of nine and 10-year-olds were overweight or obese, an increase from 8.5 per cent in 1981.
“The contribution of sugary drinks is significant. One 12oz drink per day would give me 15 pounds of weight each year. And then there’s this [belief]… you just need to exercise, well to burn off the calories you’d have to walk 1.5 miles… a lot of us don’t have the kinds of lifestyles and jobs that allow us to burn off one can of coke,” she told the audience.
In 2015, Barbados became the first Caribbean country to impose a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, in a bid to discourage public consumption. However, proponents of the levy, including Samuels, have been pressing for the 10 per cent tax to be increased to 20 per cent, to ensure its effectiveness.
Replying to a question from the audience, she stressed that there is no ‘magic bullet’ with the imposition of taxes and an educational campaign is required to drive home the ill effects of sugar. She described one such campaign conducted in Mexico.“I have a slide [of Mexico] where they had demonstrations in graveyards holding up sugar like if they had a relative that died of diabetes; they went to the gravestone and held up placards and had demonstrations. So… public education is important because people will always try to get around something if they don’t understand the reasoning behind it…. We need to do much more than just put on a tax,” she said.
She also defended calls for an increase in the levy, saying that while the law stipulated a ten per cent levy, only six per cent was transferred to the consumer.
“The second thing is that over time, the Trinidad dollar has devalued. We get a lot of our sweetened drinks from Trinidad and… because [their] dollar devalued, the relative price of those drinks [was] less. And so consumption changed in that direction.
“We need 20 per cent. This is like saying ‘I put three wheels on my car and look, the car is not driving’. You need four wheels for the car to drive; you need 20 per cent tax. This is recognised, it has been researched, and we have seen that you need 20 per cent tax. So the bottom line is that the tax is too low,” Professor Samuels said.