The government’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr Roshan Parasram, told a recent meeting of the Parliament’s Joint Select Committee on Social Services and Public Administration of plans for the implementation of a “sugar tax”.
This, he said, was to be a means by which to address the widening problem of childhood obesity in the country.
In a quick response to this disclosure, the former president of the Trinidad and Tobago Manufacturers Association (TTMA) correctly said this was not a new issue. He said, also, that local beverage manufacturers have indeed been taking steps to address the percentage of sugar going into their manufactured drinks. But he also said combating the plague of obesity, generally, and childhood obesity in particular, required a much more broad-based national strategy.
Referring to what he termed “a very expensive process,” the then TTMA head said this required marketing, re-branding, research and development. But more than this, he pointed to what has also been a profusely discussed alternative in addressing the health of citizens overall, the “right balance” between diet and exercise.
There remains to be developed a properly designed national campaign aimed at informing citizens of the dangers of unbalanced eating and drinking, and physical activity. In addition, there cannot appear to be any attempt to isolate soft-drinks in this effort where, as the TTMA has reminded us, there are other foods which contain sugar content requiring similarly focused attention.
Further to this, ample evidence already exists to demonstrate that the expected effects of higher taxes on consumer products very often are not realised, largely because of ingrained habits. This is where sustained public awareness and information programmes must be put to work.
Previous administrations have gone this route, as exemplified by the administrative campaign against tobacco products. This has driven advertising into the ground, and the jacking up of prices has met with virtually no resistance. There has been no discernible decline in the consumption of such products, with the locally produced brands also fighting against the untrammelled infiltration of a range of foreign brands. Similarly, years of taxation and duty imposition on alcohol products has not had the effect of dampening the preference for them in the marketplace.
In any campaign of public awareness, the importance of emphasising the ultimate responsibility for citizens to take charge for their own lifestyle choices is paramount.
There is no more potent force for change than that which starts with personal responsibility.
Such public awareness campaigns must be tailored to be delivered to schools, where still impressionable minds can be moulded in the direction of avoiding such choices as would create life-threatening personal behaviours.
Matters such as these require a much more broad-based approach, involving stakeholders across a range of sectors, to provide for comprehensive alternatives that will make a difference in the long term.