Tax high-sugar products, to tackle obesity and save lives

Over two weeks ago an 18-year-old boy died in his sleep at Magiagi. Jason Kilali Te’o, who was a student at Leififi College, could not be woken up on the morning of Thursday, May 23. 

Distraught mother Aneriueta Seiuli Te’o told the Samoa Observer that her son did not respond when she tried to wake him up to prepare for school that morning. 

And she has blamed obesity for ending her son’s life prematurely, a tragedy she partly blames herself for.

"From what I have learned, I regret spoiling my son this way, because of the eagerness that was in me to satisfy his needs, I let him just eat and he became bigger and bigger. Now he has passed away, I'm left to face this heartbreaking news that I never expected. 

"To all the parents and whoever is reading, I advise you all to look after your children's diet. Always attend to their meals day and night, as most of the children do not know what they're getting themselves into, although we all know they love food,” she said.

Sadly, Jason is another Samoan life gone too soon, cut short by what some often call “lifestyle diseases” or non-communicable diseases (N.C.Ds). 

A number of studies have been done in recent years on obesity and other lifestyle diseases in Samoa, confirming the gravity of the health crisis and the need for immediate action.

Last year a World Health Organisation (W.H.O.) report estimated that 70-80 per cent of patients seen by local health professionals had N.C.Ds. The same report frighteningly found that 50.1 per cent of Samoa’s adult population were at a high risk of developing N.C.Ds, while over 70 per cent of the surveyed population never had blood pressure or blood glucose level checks. 

Five months after the W.H.O. report was released, the matter has to be revisited after another life is taken. Therefore, we admire the courage shown by Aneriueta to go public on the cause of her son’s death, and the advice she has for other parents.

We urge parents to take on board her advice and keep an eye on and manage their children’s diet, to lessen the risks of your child becoming obese or being diagnosed with diabetes. 

World Health Organisation’s Representative to Samoa, Dr. Basul Baghirov told this newspaper that the incidents of obesity are high in Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga. 

He said two solutions to tackling the health crisis is for the Government to charge high taxes on sugar products, and running awareness and advocacy programmes in communities and schools.

Daily exercises can also help reduce obesity, he added, and made reference to the increasing number of people he has seen climbing Mt Vaea as a form of exercise.  

But the death of a teenager and many others before him, surely would warrant the Ministry of Health (M.O.H.) starting dialogue with key partners, with a view to formulating draft legislation to move towards taxing high-sugar food and drinks being sold in Samoa.

The W.H.O. believes there are benefits going down that path as going beyond your normal intake of sugar leads to obesity, diabetes and tooth decay. Today it is very easy to consume a lot of sugar, especially sugary drinks, which are a major source of sugar in our diet. The U.N. health agency says there is increasing consumption of sugary drinks in most countries, especially amongst children and adolescents. 

According to W.H.O. guidelines, in order to prevent obesity and tooth decay, adults and children should reduce their consumption of free sugar to less than 10 per cent of their daily intake, which is equivalent to around 12 teaspoons of table sugar for adults. The guidelines also recommend further reduction in one’s intake of sugars to be 5 per cent of daily energy intake (around 6 tablespoons of table sugar for adults) for extra health benefits.

But what are the real benefits of such taxation legislation if Samoa is to go down that path? 

Here is what the W.H.O. has to say about it.

“Taxation on sugary drinks is an effective intervention to reduce sugar consumption. Evidence shows that a tax on sugary drinks that rises prices by 20 per cent can lead to a reduction in consumption of around 20 per cent, thus preventing obesity and diabetes.”

The W.H.O. then made reference to another case study from Mexico in 2014, where it said there was evidence showing that imposing taxes on sugary drinks lead to their reduced consumption by the people. 

With many case studies from around the world — confirming the life-saving impact of charging taxes on products that are high in sugar — it is time for the Samoa Government to walk the talk and start saving lives from obesity and other lifestyle diseases.

Have a lovely Friday Samoa and God bless. 

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