HEALTH Minister Dr Duane Sands.
By RASHAD ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporter
THE Ministry of Health will ban the sale of sugary drinks from all of its nearly 80 nationwide institutions, Health Minister Dr Duane Sands said yesterday.
He spoke to The Tribune as his ministry prepares to release its latest comprehensive survey about non-communicable diseases in the Bahamas, which was prepared in conjunction with the Pan-American Health Organisation and contains what he called “frightening” and “horrendous” results for the country.
On Friday, during his speech at the Free National Movement’s Torchbearers Youth Association convention, Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis also teased plans to tackle obesity issues.
“Healthy, educated children and young people make for a healthier society, which is why we are also going to more aggressively address childhood and adolescent obesity, including the risks posed by sugary drinks,” Dr Minnis said.
When contacted for more details, Dr Sands said the ban on sugary drinks will go into effect no later than October.
“The policy is not going to be received warmly from everybody, there will be cries from some people but If we are in the business of promulgating best health practices we should not contribute, whether directly or indirectly, to any behaviour that results in negative health impacts,” Dr Sands said.
The government has already banned the sale of sugary drinks from public schools but Dr Sands said students can often buy the drinks from nearby vendors, nullifying the effectiveness of the policy.
“Vendors who have contracts with the government have specific instructions related to quality of food, beverages and nutritional values but that has not stopped every vendor outside school grounds from doing what they wish so the ban has not been as effective as we would like it to be,” he said.
After banning sugary drinks the Ministry of Health, Dr Sands said, will not necessarily seek to do the same thing with chips, chocolate bars and other junk food obtainable from most vending machines in public institutions.
“We have identified sugar-sweetened beverages as public enemy number one and the next step will be to deal with trans-fats and other harmful substances but I am not a proponent of massive government,” he said. “What I am a proponent of is a combination of smart policy and effective educational initiatives so we have to combine effective public education with reasonable disincentives.”
For the time being, the Minnis administration has sidelined an idea it previously floated as a way to discourage consumption of sugary drinks and fund National Health Insurance: a sin tax.
“We may get to the sin tax but the policy making of governments is holistic and overarching and the decision was made that we will introduce no new taxes this fiscal year,” Dr Sands said. “Whether you agree or don’t agree with that approach to drilling down on the challenge of non-communicable diseases, we made a policy decision which I agree with. It doesn’t mean we won’t continue to push for punitive measures to reduce the consumption of unhealthy items.”
Last year the Ministry of Health conducted the STEPwise approach to Surveillance (STEPS) survey, a method of monitoring and fighting non-communicable diseases, which are the leading causes of death.
“We received significant funding from the Pan-American Health Organisation,” Dr Sands said. “It’s a research project where we interviewed and examined more than 3,600 Bahamians over 18. We not only interviewed them but we also measured their blood pressure, we did sugar and cholesterol measurements and we’ve done similar studies in 2012 and 2005 and so we have longitudinal data to look at how we’ve done over the last decade. The sample size is statistically adequate to make statements about the about the state of Bahamian health and we have just about completed the review of the data and now it’s just a matter of releasing the study results.”
Dr Sands said even when compared to the 2005 and 2012 surveys, the latest results are “distressing”.
“As we prepare to release the results of the survey, data from that study is frightening,” he said. “It speaks to the need to step up on the interventions to reduce the horrendous, tsunami of non-communicable diseases. Part of the problem is that the people that pay the biggest price are the ones that can least afford it. The people struggling to make ends meet are who consume the greatest amount of sugary beverages and unhealthy foods.”