‘There was unanimous consent on the need to use the revenue derived from the SSB taxes to fund specific health, sporting and youth initiatives.’
With Sugar-Sweetened Beverages (SSBs) being among the leading causes of obesity and diabetes in the twin – island state, officials from the Pan American Health Organizations joined hands with a number of Government and non-Governmental officials during a Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Workshop at Rex Halcyon Resort on Tuesday, July 11th.
The event, attended by over forty individuals, focused on the need for a specific tax which would target unhealthy sugar-sweetened drinks and beverages such as canned and bottled sodas, energy drinks, fruit drinks, sports drinks, sweetened tea and coffee, sweetened milk and sweetened chocolate.
During the one-day exercise, power point presentations were made by PAHO Adviser on Chronic Diseases, Dr. Tomo Kanda and Distinguished Professor at the University of Illinois, Lisa M Powell who is also a PAHO Consultant on Fiscal Policies to Reduce Obesity. Both focussed on the dangers sugar – sweetened beverages pose to the population and the benefits that can be derived from the implementation of an SSB tax.
Dr. Kanda spoke mainly on the subject, ‘Preventing Childhood Obesity through Best-Buy Interventions and Policy Options’ while Professor Powell’s discourse was centered on the topic of ‘Fiscal Policy and SSBs.’
Speaking on the issue, Dr. Kanda disclosed that taxation and even the banning of unhealthy foods and beverages are ways of getting the job done but added that the authorities must work with the vendors and suppliers to provide healthier alternatives.
“Taxation is one way but we also have to set up a healthy environment in schools and communities. We have to see how we can regulate the selling of unhealthy food and sugar-sweetened drinks, not just within the school but outside. But we also have to think about the people who are selling these products, they might lose a job tomorrow but it does not have to be because we can also collaborate and work with them and instead of selling sugar candy, chocolate and sugar-sweetened beverages, they can find alternative, healthy choices,” noted Dr. Kanda.
The PAHO official further added that a multi-sectorial partnership is essential if Antigua and Barbuda is to successfully confront and overcome obesity and reduce the threat of non-communicable diseases. “But it needs to go beyond a partnership; engagement is needed, existing resources must be utilised and the main priorities must be identified,” said Dr. Kanda.
Commenting on the issue of childhood obesity, Non-Communicable Disease and Wellness Committee Coordinator in the Ministry of Health and the Environment, Nurse Valerie Williams, declared that if Antigua and Barbuda is to succeed in the fight against NCDs, there must be a concerted effort to push back against the manner in which unhealthy foods and drinks are being marketed to the younger population.
“There is unequivocal evidence that the marketing of unhealthy foods and sugar-sweetened beverages is related to childhood obesity. Children are the largest consumer of sugary drinks and other energy-dense foods with no nutritional value. Any attempt to tackle childhood obesity should therefore include a reduction in the exposure of the youth to the marketing power of unhealthy foods and drinks,” said Nurse Williams.
The Wellness Committee Coordinator noted that children who are obese are likely to remain obese as they move into adulthood and obesity leads to diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and kidney failure
Professor Powell demonstrated how fiscal policy can be used as a tool to reduce the use of sugar-sweetened beverages but she emphasised that this was only one of many tools in the fight to reduce obesity. She pointed out the social, economic and medical costs of obesity.
The University of Illinois Professor made reference to Mexico and to Berkeley, California where SSB taxes have been introduced. In Mexico, there was a ten percent increase in the price of sugar-sweetened beverages and this led to a twelve percent decrease in consumption. Meanwhile, in Berkeley, there has been a twenty-one percent decrease in sugary drink consumption as a consequence of the SSB tax.
Professor Powell said that PAHO and World Health Organization (WHO) suggest a tax of at least 20 (twenty) percent on sugar-sweetened beverages, to include regular soda, energy drinks, sports drinks, fruit drinks, sweetened tea, coffee and milk, indeed any beverage that includes sugar.
She was adamant that the tax must extend to domestic production as well as imported sugar-sweetened beverages.
Two Caribbean nations, Barbados and Dominica have recently implemented SSB taxes at ten percent. Professor Powell told her audience that Antigua and Barbuda has an advantage in that it is the only Caribbean country to have baseline data, compiled from a recent in-country survey which collected information on the prices of sugar-sweetened beverages from twenty-two supermarkets and grocery stores. She presented the data findings to the workshop.
The presentations were followed by a lively discussion, questions and answers, group sessions deliberations and the formulation of recommendations.
Some participants opined that it will take bold and decisive steps by the government to successfully implement an SSB tax and to reduce obesity in the Antigua and Barbuda. For some, a 20 percent tax was not enough. Some wanted a 70 percent tax. Others felt that certain SSBs need to be banned.
There was unanimous consent on the need to use the revenue derived from the SSB taxes to fund specific health, sporting and youth initiatives. Professor Powell, who first made these suggestions at an earlier meeting with an SSB Task Force, said that perhaps the revenue could be referred to as a health levy rather than a tax.
Other recommendations made were the need for schools’ guidelines and regulations in relation to increased physical activity and the sale of sugar- sweetened beverages by vendors in close proximity to school premises.
One popular recommendation was for Cabinet to lower or eliminate taxes on imported fruits and vegetables. Another called for increased local production of fruits and vegetables and the agro-processing of such products.
Following the Tuesday workshop, Nurse Valarie Williams, Dr. Kanda and Professor Powell were due to present their findings and recommendations to the Cabinet of Antigua and Barbuda.
Dr. Kanda, in a charge to the workshop delegates and to the SSB Task Force at a Consultation on Monday, told them that it was now up to them to get this done. PAHO can advise and make recommendations but it was up to them to sensitize the population, to get it to support the initiative and in so doing to reduce obesity and improve public health in Antigua and Barbuda.
“We’re talking about a population of just over 90,000. Honestly, if you want to make the change, you can do it.”