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THE HOYOS FILE: Making customers obese – not good business


THE HOYOS FILE: Making customers obese – not good business

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EVERY TIME I am given a glimpse of the deadly stats I wonder how much longer we are going to keep our heads buried in that plate of fried chicken and french fries, only raising it every now and then to wash them all down with gulps of sweet, fizzy drinks.

But, as this is a business column, I shall clear my mind and try to focus on the policy question that must be dealt with by the private sector if the efforts of the Government are to succeed: how much is too much sugar, fat and salt if they are all killing us?

I am talking about how we are letting the younger generation of our country dig itself an early grave. The pallbearers taking their collective cortege to the cemetery will be diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke and cancer.

If that image is too graphic for you, and you think I have gone too far, I sincerely apologise.

Instead, let me summarise the case through the words of the professionals:

Forty-six per cent of the school-aged population in Barbados is either overweight or obese, according to a 2011 health survey by the World Health Organisation (WHO), called The Global School-Based Student Health Survey.

The 2011 survey also noted that almost three quarters of all students drink carbonated soft drinks one or more times per day, and only one third of students get enough exercise.

This crisis of obesity has made the world’s health authority very concerned about what is going on in Barbados.

Speaking at a Press briefing recently, the Pan American Health Organisation/WHO representative for Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean, Dr Godfrey Xuereb, said that in a period of 35 years, or one generation, Barbados has moved from an island where a third of the children were malnourished to almost four in every ten adolescents being overweight or obese.

I don’t want to spoil the parade, but maybe that is something we need to remember as we celebrate 50 years of Independence.

We are, as a nation, unhealthier overall than we were when we lowered the Union Jack. Xuereb added that eight out of ten of deaths in Barbados were attributed to diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and cancer.

The National Nutrition Centre, has now published new guidelines aimed at changing the eating habits of children and encouraging more physical activity.

But acting chief nutrition officer Dr Mark Alleyne said they would only work if the ministries of health and education, school principals and schools’ boards of management worked together to implement them.

Alleyne also said that the sale of unhealthy foods on school premises for fund-raising should also be strongly discouraged. (I know of one secondary school where students have to earn money to pay for their own graduation ceremony, and they do so by selling donuts every day, often selling out.)

I have a few observations to make about all this: it is doomed to failure unless the Government of the day gets serious about separating the kids from junk food, by imposing serious fines for vendors and canteen operators who transgress.

But I have a feeling one of the major contributors to our children’s obesity is the Government’s own School Meals Department. This is only anecdotal, but everything I have heard of or actually seen about their menu I would not feed to anybody.

Maybe that’s just me. Maybe PAHO should audit them and see what their protein to carb to fat ratios are. Next, there is no point trying to get it right inside the schools if you are allowing vendors right outside the gates to sell all the same junk you are trying to ban inside.

That leads me to the packaged snack and beverage drink wholesalers and manufacturers.

Let me just ask any of you who have kids in school or, let’s say, even have your eyes open as you drive the streets and observe who is walking with them: how long are you going to continue with the excuse that unless you pack these items up with sugar, salt and fat nobody is going to buy them?

Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler put a ten per cent tax on sweetened beverages in the last budget. I hope it has helped, but a tax alone is not enough and it is inflationary.

The rise in sales of bottled water shows you that people want alternatives, but sometimes you need a bit of sugar, processed or natural. Right now, as soon as you reach for that soft drink, you are heading down the road to ruin.

If the national taste buds are not there yet, the private sector must do more to push the less sugar fizzy drinks and try to improve on the fruit-flavoured offerings, which also are full of sugar.

I don’t mean the “diet” or “zero” ones as they may be worse for you. AmBev, which owns SLU Beverages, which now owns Banks Holdings Limited (BHL), sets an exemplary tone on its website with regard to beer and drinking. It tells you, basically, not to overdo it, and if you plan to, to get a designated driver, and so on.

The new chairman of BHL told me the company was serious about this and still made money despite encouraging people to drink responsibility, which essentially means drinking less.

BHL needs to be invited to join the national anti-obesity drive in this country and to bring its creative forces to bear on the situation.

Healthier people will be around longer to consume products and our health care system will gradually be able to emerge from the weight of obesity-related cases which is pulling it down, and taking financial resources away from other health problems the country faces.

Killing the consumer off early is probably only a good short term business strategy. (Sorry, that was a joke).

Obesity is a man made disease and we can work to reduce it, but the private sector must stop making excuses and work on making products that are better for consumers.

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