Use COVID-19 lessons to spur actions to address NCDs, Jamaica’s Health Minister says

File Photo | Jamaica's Minister of Health Dr. the Hon. Christopher Tufton (foreground) leads a Jamaica Moves exercise session (Photo Credits to Loop Jamaica News)

(CARICOM Secretariat, Georgetown, Guyana) – Minister of Health of Jamaica, Dr. the Hon. Christopher Tufton says there is an opportunity in the COVID-19 pandemic to bring chronic Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) back under the spotlight.

Speaking recently at a Rotary District 7030: World Obesity Day Webinar which brought childhood obesity into focus, Minister Tufton acknowledged that the pandemic has been a “great disrupter” of the actions to advance the fight against NCDs.

Nevertheless, he said lessons from COVID-19, including that persons with obesity challenges are most vulnerable to severe illness and death, could provide the impetus to get back on the trajectory of lifestyle choices, laws and policies for NCDs prevention.

He said Jamaica has completed a baseline study on trans-fats in foods, and is preparing an approach to industry (food manufacturers) based on the findings of that research.

While similar studies on salts and sugar are ongoing, he said the government is advocating, with much resistance, for Front of Package Labelling to give consumers the right to know what is in the foods they purchase.

According to the Programme Manager for Health Sector Development at the CARICOM Secretariat, Dr. Karen Boyle, CARICOM is exploring a Front of Package Labelling system that will allow consumers to quickly tell whether foods are high in sugars, salt and trans-fat.

Minister Tufton said a collaborative efforts is needed to push the initiative as “industry puts a lot of effort into trying to maneuver around this kind of debate and ultimately policy direction.”

According to former Executive Director of the Caribbean Public Health Agency, Dr. James Hospedales, who also spoke during the Webinar, Front of Package Labelling has been extremely successful in giving consumers a clear sign that a food is unhealthy for its high fats, salts or overall high-calorie contents. 

Describing it as the “lever” of CARICOM’s six-point policy package for a healthier food environment, he said if a Front of Package Labelling system were to be implemented in CARICOM, foods that are calorie dense and nutrition poor, cannot be sold in schools or marketed to vulnerable groups including children. This, it is anticipated, would force food manufacturers towards reformulation.  

The six-point policy package spans nutrition standards for schools and other institutions; trade and fiscal policies on increased taxation for sugar sweetened beverages; and incentives for the use of local foods, fruits and vegetables.

Dr. Boyle said CARICOM is working assiduously in setting the policy environment to address all the risks in the obesogenic environment and in all the stages of one’s lifespan. That includes prenatal, birth, early childhood, adolescence, and finality.

Recognising that exclusive breast-feeding for the first six months of life reduce the risk of childhood obesity, Dr. Boyle said the Community has been promoting Baby Friendly Hospitals to advance that policy.

She commended Rotary District 7030 for organising the discussion which she said symbolises the kind of collaboration needed for tangible actions to emanate from policies.

Underscoring that unhealthy diets and physical inactivity are two modifiable risks for childhood obesity, Dr. Boyle said parents have a role to play in ensuring children spend enough time in sports and other physical activities, and less time sitting with electronic devices. She also stressed the importance of physical education in schools, as well as the need for more parks and safe areas for free exercise.

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