it is by now generally accepted that many, if not all, of the non-communicable diseases owe their origins mainly to poor lifestyle choices; typified by one or more of an unhealthy diet; a mostly sedentary lifestyle, little if any physical activity at all and markedly defective education in that regard.
There is a public interest element in this context, given that taxpayer-funded state-provided health care eventually has to be made available to these individuals, not to mention the loss of productivity as a result of debilitating illness and consequent absence from work. In brief, it is perfectly legitimate for the state power to intervene by means of policy initiatives to create a healthier population.
It was of more than passing interest therefore, to learn of the contention between two respected local medical practitioners as reported in another section of the press recently. Sir Trevor Hassell, president of the Healthy Caribbean Coalition, quoting research statistics that suggested a partiality among the nation’s children for fast foods and carbonated beverages – the local sweet drinks – and a seeming antipathy to the consumption of fruits and vegetables and to participation in physical activity called for an end to fast food companies sponsoring school sports and other family-oriented activities in light of what appears to be an epidemic of obesity among Barbadian children. According to Sir Trevor, these recommendations have been endorsed by other regional organisations, including the Caribbean Public Health Agency [CARPHA] and the Pan American Health Organization [PAHO]. In addition to the prohibition on sponsorship, he also suggested other remedial measures, including an end to the advertising and promotion of fast foods and sugar sweetened beverages in schools and the re-introduction of periods of compulsory physical activity.
It is not surprising, however, that such recommendations would not be universally accepted, especially given the current predilection with individual rights that we assume include the right to neglect one’s better health and, accordingly, to eat and drink whatever seizes one’s fancy at the moment.
While such a degree of recklessness was not at all suggested in his response, Dr. Adrian Lorde, a general practitioner, disagreed with Sir Trevor’s position. He argued that both McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, globally celebrated purveyors of fast food and carbonated sweet drinks respectively were Olympic sponsors, but that did not mean that sports people used those products.
While we do not accept that this analogy is directly apposite, since we doubt that any aspiring Olympian would be distracted from his or her strict regimen by the products of either of these companies, we agree entirely with Dr. Lorde’s further reported assertion that “people need to make better food choices”.
In our view, this most useful suggestion conceals a number of difficulties, however. The keys to wise food choices are not education and will only, but also affordability; both in terms of opportunity costs and financial means. While there is no lack of available counsel as to healthy eating locally, the current economic difficulties and the contemporary distractions that make the purchase of fast food a far more viable alternative than a cooked meal are likely to subtract from the healthier option.
When we add to the equation the allure of the fast food and sweet drink advertisements especially to the younger members of the family, we can appreciate that the struggle for a healthier lifestyle is one fraught with formidable diversion.