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by Maisha Hutton
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a moment of reckoning for world leaders. It has highlighted a weak global health system and various co-morbidities which heightens the risk of death and disease.
The global obesity and diet-related epidemic is just one of many that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a recent article published in The Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology, leading global nutrition experts urge governments to take immediate action to pass evidence-based healthy food policies. Specifically, they recommend taxation, marketing restrictions, front of package warning labels and school food policies.
In the last few decades, significant increases in overweight, obesity and nutrition related non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in the Caribbean have been fueled in large part by a rapid growth in the promotion and subsequent consumption of sugary drinks and ultra-processed products (UPP), which are defined as industrially formulated mixtures that are high in added sugar, salt and fat and have little to no nutritional value and contain little if any intact foods.
In layman’s terms, these are the potato chips, soft drinks and packaged cookies we see at the supermarkets every day. Food sales data indicate that these products are the fastest growing segment of global diets. Increased consumption of UPPs increases the risk of obesity, diabetes, hypertension and all-cause mortality.
Obesity, type 2 diabetes and other diet-related diseases are major risk factors for worsened disease outcomes and higher rates of death from COVID-19. With 1 in 3 Caribbean children overweight or obese, this is a wake-up call for our government to take action to pass proven policies which can halt the increasing consumption of these unhealthy and heavily processed products.
Many countries have already implemented healthy food policies, which are successfully changing food systems while posing little economic harm. These policies encourage the public to choose healthier foods and drinks while increasing their knowledge about what is in the food they consume.
Chile has implemented a package of policies which includes marketing restrictions, front of package warning labels and school food policies.
The marketing restrictions prevent child exposure to junk food marketing at home and in schools, which is likely to result in long term benefits for their diets.
Fiscal policies, such as those implemented in Mexico and South Africa, have reduced the consumption of sugary drinks without negatively impacting employment in the food and beverage sectors, an argument often made by the industry.
Brazil has instituted a potentially revolutionary school feeding program which is just beginning to be evaluated. Closer to home in the Caribbean, a number of countries have introduced taxes on sugar sweetened beverages (SSBs) including Bermuda which as a 75 per cent tax on these beverages.
Other countries such as Trinidad and Tobago have introduced national bans on the sale of SSBs in schools. Preliminary evaluations are showing positive impacts and emerging data is promising.
Globally, while countries push ahead with policies to create healthier food environments for healthier populations, the food and beverage industry has aggressively tried to disrupt these policy advances.
It continues to market unhealthy products while actively blocking healthy food policies – deploying familiar industry tactics such as questioning existing scientific data and continually calling for additional evidence to demonstrate positive health outcomes. The Caribbean is on a path towards accelerated implementation of healthy food policies to tackle obesity in adults and children and NCDs – a mandate called for by CARICOM Heads of Government and State.
If effective evidence-based policies such as those called for here are to be fast-tracked, the region must learn from global experiences in identifying, mitigating and managing conflicts of interest and countering industry interference by adopting mechanisms to safeguard healthy food policymaking processes from the potentially negative influences of the regional ultra-processed food and beverage sector.
COVID-19 has highlighted the severe human health and security inequities and vulnerabilities created when our societies collectively fail to prioritise health over profits; and when we as citizens do not demand that our governments place people at the centre of public policymaking.
Our toxic food environments are making us sick and perhaps the biggest casualties are our children who are targeted brazenly as mini profit-centres fueling multimillion-dollar UPP industries. We are almost numb to the data now – 33 per cent of Caribbean children are overweight or obese.
But we need to be deeply concerned. This is the quintessential canary in the coal mine – forewarning of a health and economic crisis affecting entire generations predestined to early onset NCDs and premature mortality.
States have a fundamental obligation, under the right-to-health framework, to adopt regulatory measures aimed at tackling NCDs, and by extension to regulate the activities of the food and beverage industry, and decisively counter undue influence of corporations on government decision-making.
The evidence is clear – overconsumption of ultra-processed products is the single greatest factor driving the twin epidemics of obesity and NCDs. The HCC joins these academic experts in calling for the Caribbean leaders to take swift action and prioritise the implementation of healthy food policies including octagonal front of package nutrition warning labelling (FOPWL).
Voting is currently underway across CARICOM Member states – until May 31st- to adopt the Final Draft CARICOM Regional Standard for Specification for labelling of pre-packaged foods (FDCRS 5:2010) which incorporates front-of-package warning label specifications and the PAHO nutrient profile model.
Governments need to take action now – we cannot afford to wait any longer.
Maisha Hutton is the Executive Director, Healthy Caribbean Coalition