Islands and their dirty little secret

(The People 19th September) Well, it’s not really a secret and its definitely not little– everyone knows about it but no one wants to discuss it as one of the biggest problems of sustainable development in Small island Developing States (SIDS). I’m talking about that other F word – FAT

Small Islands, Big People

I must have written at least 10 articles about obesity in the last 10 years. My last one, prior to the UN SIDS Meeting in Samoa urged island representatives to focus on obesity as a key development challenge. Unfortunately, obesity was not really highlighted at this Meeting. Yes, there was a Plenary item on Social Development, Health and Non-communicable Diseases, Youth and Gender – a theme that was carried a few times in partnership meetings and in side events – but nothing specifically on obesity. Are we in denial?

SIDS hold some of the fattest people on the planet and that alone is threatening their sustainability. SIDS have topped the fat charts for some time – the 7 most overweight nations have been SIDS. A recent study by the FAO reveals this is still the case. The world’s fattest nation, Nauru, a SIDS, boasts a 71.1 percent obesity rate. In Seychelles, almost 74% of women and about 64% of men in Seychelles are overweight with more than 25% of the adult population being obese. This statistic is already a decade or so old. Dr Danny Louange of the Ministry of Health recently said that the figures may have doubled - more than 4,000 secondary students are overweight.

A Huge Problem

The problem has become hugely alarming (pardon the pun). Last year, Pacific islands health experts called for a quota on the amount of fatty food exported to their countries because heart disease, diabetes and obesity leading to limb amputations have become the norm. At the SIDS Meeting this year the South Pacific Community’s Director General said overweight and obese children in the islands are likely to stay obese into adulthood, and develop non-communicable diseases (NCD) at a young age. He says NCDs account for 75 percent of all deaths in the Pacific, which is among the highest in the world.

Three years ago in this newspaper I suggested that Seychelles adopt a “ fat tax” or what I termed a “Samoosa Tax”. Some other countries have adopted such taxes and they are not only working but bringing in huge tax revenues for governments. Hungary has adopted a fat tax and the tax revenues will be worth up to 111 million euro and would pay for state-funded health care which has a deficit of about 371 million euro.

Fat equals Sick

Research studies in Seychelles and elsewhere demonstrate that obesity is associated with a high incidence of diabetes Type 2. Generally in most populations, as they have found in the Pacific SIDS, the risks of getting some other non-communicable diseases as BMI increases are also high and include hypertension, disabling degenerative disease of the joints and some cancers.

And, it will get worse before it gets better because childhood obesity is already a big issue in this country. In general, childhood obesity is associated with a higher chance of obesity, premature death and disability in adulthood. Obese children may experience breathing difficulties, increased risk of fractures, hypertension, early markers of cardiovascular disease, and psychological effects.

Fat is not Sustainable

I have said before and I will say it again. Obesity in Seychelles and other SIDS is a barrier to Sustainable Development. But how come, you ask? The financial costs of obesity to the government health service, to companies and to the economy in general are huge. Sicker people mean more expenses. Health care costs for obese employees in the US are 77% higher than those for employees of healthy weight. But loss of productivity due to obesity can cost a nation as much - up to US$73.1 billion annually among full-time workers in the US. 

Scarce resources are being diverted to help people who consciously choose unhealthy lifestyles. The economies of small island states would be much more efficient if they did not have to deal with the many consequences of an overweight population. In fact, the minority which has a healthy lifestyle is being penalized as it also has to foot the tax bill for the overweight majority.

Fat is Bad For Business

There is another important fall out. Low productivity in the work place has been flagged as a barrier to moving our economy to the next level. Overweight workers must be one of the root causes. Research conducted in the UK and elsewhere has shown that obese workers take more days off than those with normal weight (BMI).

A study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine reveals that obesity’s hidden costs stem from the fact that obese people tend to be less productive than normal-weight people while at work — simply accounting for the sick days they take misses a large part of the picture.

The Triple Bottom Line

In the next 5 years, if trends continue, the number of obese and overweight people will no doubt increase in Seychelles. So, what can we do to change the situation over and above augmenting health education? Disincentives to eating fatty foods could be introduced. The diets of overweight people usually contain excess fat, salt and sugars. It’s common to see people in our country gobbling samoosas, gato banan, gato piman and other assorted fatty foods, chased down with Coke or Sprite, even for breakfast.

Has the time come for “The Samoosa Tax” - in Seychelles? It could tackle the triple bottom line of overconsumption, productivity, and the national budget by curbing the first and increasing the latter two. Let’s take obesity for what it is, more than a health problem but rather a big challenge for sustainable development.

By Dr Nirmal Shah, CEO Nature Seychelles. 

Photos: 1) The Heritage (organic) Garden was started by Nature Seychelles to encourage seychellois to live healthier 2) Produce for sale at the opening of the Heritage Garden 3) Dr Shah presenting a copy of Nature Seychelles recently published book 'Grow and Eat Your Own Food, Seychelles' to Miss Seychelles 2014 for her healthy living project 4) Children take part in green exercise activities at The Sanctuary, Nature Seychelles 5) Part of the Heritage Garden 6) Lavelu picking lettuce at the Heritage Garden

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