Editorial: Carts and horses

The Cabinet briefing notes, for which we are very grateful and compliment the administration for their consistency, always deliver a gem or two.  In the most recent release, it was reported that the Cabinet invited an expert from the Ministry of the Environment to discuss the possibility of securing higher quality take-away biodegradable food and drink containers. That is good but as the report points out, the move is done “now that Styrofoam has been banned, and plastic utensils are also to be phased out.”  As we have asked many times before, why after and not before.

To our mind, the environmental experts should have made this type of presentation a long time ago.

Changes with such significant impacts, such as banning Styrofoam containers, are welcomed but there needs to be planning so that the negative impacts are minimised. We know the retort will be that these are alternatives to paper products that were initially adopted and have taken the place of the Styrofoam but that still does not answer the question.  

If the government is going to impose these types of policies then they need to put all the options on the table from day one so that the stakeholders can be informed and can plan. Unfortunately, planning is not our forte; not here and not really anywhere else in the region. There is always time to do things over, but there is never time to to do it right. It seems to be cultural and if we really want to get on the path to becoming an economic powerhouse, we have to start planning. Just making ‘popular’ decisions without a plan can make good intentions unpopular really fast.

This brings us to another issue addressed in the Cabinet briefing that caught our eye and seems to hold the same potential of a well-intentioned social policy turning into a bit of a nightmare. The briefing noted that Cabinet confirmed its decision to impose higher import taxes on sugary juices and sugary sodas, in order to discourage consumption. The reasoning being, “there is an indisputable connection between the consumption of high quantities of sugar and diabetes, the debilitating disease, that leads to the loss of limbs, the failure of organs – especially kidneys – and an early death for those afflicted with the disease.”  Fair enough but what is the plan? What studies underpin this decision and what follow-up studies will confirm the taxes’ effectiveness? What products are affected?  

There is no doubt that sugar has many negative effects and it is logical that raising the price on sugary drinks will likely reduce consumption but what effect will that have on the overall health of our nation? For example, if we look at orange juice, will that be on the list of sugary juices? The glycemic index (GI) for orange juice is between 66 and 76 (on a scale of 100) and that ranks it as being ‘high’. The GI index level reflects the impact on blood sugar levels and high GI foods are to be avoided by people with diabetes.   

It is not enough to just look at something and tax it, in the hopes that you will achieve your goals of lower consumption and a reduction in diabetes. It must be part of a larger health policy and one which is unique to our diet and culture. Just because the United States or the United Kingdom has implemented this type of taxation does not mean that we should follow. Our particular set of circumstances should dictate what our health policy should look like.

While we are tackling sugary drinks, what about sugary foods? And if we are going to tackle sugar as part of a health policy for reigning in diabetes, what about something like obesity, which PAHO (Pan American Health Organization) says affects a large percentage of the Caribbean’s population; and for the third consecutive year is on the rise?  It represents the region’s biggest nutritional threat and should be up-front in any national health policy.

We are not trying to dissuade the government from taking decisive action for the betterment of our environment and public health. All we are promoting is for holistic plans to be developed and a refrain from doing things over or implementing follow-fashion, knee-jerk policies that do not look at the big picture, or are simply not the best for our set of circumstances. In particular, let us not implement policies without first being able to test their effectiveness.  Surely, we can tax sugary drinks but in five or 10 years, will we have any way of measuring the impact of the tax other than the amount of dollars collected?

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