This month, the Jamaican Economy Panel (JEP) discusses what policies could be pursued to address the high rates of obesity affecting the country.
According to the World Health Organization, 39% of the worldwide population is considered overweight (with a BMI above 25), while 13% is classified as obese (with a BMI above 30). The situation is substantially worse in Jamaica, with a quarter of the population classified as obese (1 in 3 women and about 15% of men).
The Jamaican government is fully aware of this challenge. In 2018, the Minister for Health and Wellness, Dr. the Honorable Christopher Tufton, stated that the increasing obesity rates "can retard and erode health and economic advances."
According to the Heart Foundation (2020), 4 out of 5 deaths in Jamaica are attributable to Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs), which are often the result of obesity. The cost of caring for patients with NCDs reached USD 170 million yearly.
The panellists unanimously endorsed that this topic is worth addressing through public policy, with a vital role for education. After all, young people are not as set in their ways. Providing complete and correct information about healthy diets may have a long-term impact on helping people make healthy choices.
Another prominent policy area for affecting behaviour is that of fiscal policy. Following the example of Mexico, which introduced a tax on sugary drinks in 2014, most panellists support the use of taxes to discourage specific kinds of food, especially if the receipts from such a tax would be earmarked for shoring up the public healthcare system. However, before implementing such a tax, it would be crucial to investigate whether the possible regressive nature of the tax could be avoided.
Finally, from a broad perspective, the panellists identified several other areas that could be utilized to address behavioural change. One way to do this is by making sure that all people have access to healthy diet choices. The other comes back to the education system and would encourage the government to improve school lunches' quality and healthfulness. Another potential upside of that approach is that it could also help strengthen agricultural value chains in the country.
The full results of this month's discussion are available here.