Monday, August 1, 2016

Thailand - All this sweetness is killing us

There’s too much sugar, plain and simple, in the drinks Thais buy

Sweetness has become bitter in Thailand. The latest survey of our collective health shows just how widespread our addiction to sugary foods has become - and sweet drinks in particular. Obesity is worryingly on the rise, along with the number of diabetes sufferers. How is this for an alarming statistic: Thailand has more obese women than any country in Asia other than China, the world's most populous nation.

Quite apart from the damage we're doing to our health, if our bad habits aren't curbed, our healthcare system is about to be massively burdened.

Thailand has actually become globally notorious for its sweet tooth, ranking ninth in sugar consumption. Women here have long consumed sugar in far more excessive amounts than men. And, in a population of 67 million, 19 million people (28 per cent) are considered overweight and 7.7 million at risk of life-threatening disease such as diabetes.

In its 2014-15 study, the Thai Health Promotion Foundation (ThaiHealth) found some improvements in our overall health. The number of smokers had decreased from 19.9 to 16 per cent since 2009, when it conducted its last survey. Alcohol consumption declined from 7.3 to 3.4 per cent. These are excellent developments, but afford little consolation given the alarming risks we're taking with sugar.

Deputy Prime Minister Admiral Narong Pipatanasai, presiding at the study's unveiling on Monday, attributed the drop in smokers and alcohol drinkers to public-awareness campaigns. If he's right, the campaigners' obvious next target is excessive sugar consumption.

The government has had a start, imposing a tax on sugary beverages. It hikes the price of drinks containing six to 10 grams of sugar per 100 ml by 20 to 25 per cent. We're optimistic it will do some good, but there are health experts who doubt its viability in weaning Thais off sweet beverages, since urbanites tend to care little about extra cost. The experts insist that more is needed to change consumer behaviour.

It's to be hoped that the government spends the revenues earned from its sugar tax on efforts that get to the root of this hazardous behaviour. The price increase alone ought to get people thinking about the amounts they consume, but the government should also be looking at the way such drinks are advertised with worrying success. The manufacturers spend enormous amounts of money promoting their products. Perhaps they can be persuaded to reduce the sugar level.

The Public Health Ministry should consider strengthening its regulations on advertising and consider imposing new rules on labelling, requiring unambiguous health warnings on the packaging.

The sweetened drinks include green tea, iced coffee and soft drinks, all of which are readily available at convenience stores, schools and workplaces. ThaiHealth found that children ages 10 to 14 were drinking more sweet beverages than ever, no doubt because the drinks are always close to hand.

It's become clear that Thais have to start seeing sugar as potentially lethal, just like cigarettes and alcohol. ThaiHealth estimates that, if we don't change our dietary habits, up to 10 per cent of the population will soon be dealing with diabetes. Given the economic pressure Thailand is already facing with its ageing population, it doesn't need the additional burdens that obesity would bring across all age categories.

A sugar tax is fine, and restrictions on advertising would be better, but the best tool would be raising public awareness about the serious risks involved in consuming too much sugar. Alerted to the danger and regularly reminded, people will adapt or change their lifestyles. That's the direction the government has to choose, and hopefully the manufacturers will assist rather than obstruct such efforts.

You can find older posts regarding ASEAN politics and economics news at SBC blog, and older posts regarding health and healthcare at IIMS blog. I thank you.

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