Government considering increased tax on unhealthy foods

Basseterre, St. Kitts – St. Kitts and Nevis officials are considering increasing taxes on food and drinks high in sugar, salt and trans fats as part of efforts to improve the health of individuals in the federation.

During his monthly press conference, the prime minister, Dr. Timothy Harris, indicated that the government has an overall interest in the security of the federation, including that of health security, which he said was of paramount importance.

“I want to encourage our residents and citizens to pay greater attention to their health and wellness,” Harris said. “Prevention is still better and cheaper than the cure.”
He indicated that the Caribbean region has the highest burden of chronic noncommunicable diseases in the Americas and leads in morbidity and mortality, saying that they account for more than three of every four deaths in the Caribbean.

“This is in contrast to other areas of the Americas,” he said, “where [people] living in CARICOM countries have the highest likelihood of dying prematurely from chronic noncommunicable diseases.”

Harris added that the problem is regional in nature and, in 2016, CARICOM heads suggested ways in which they could tackle the problem, including banning of smoking in public places and barring of advertisement of harmful foods.

“They asked that we ban the advertisement of potentially harmful foods [that] specifically target children,” Harris said. “This is perhaps a matter [that] will be quite challenging [in] deciding which of these foods.”

Another measure suggested by CARICOM was to elevate taxes on foods high in sugar, salt and transfats – not as a revenue measure, but as a deterrent. Harris said the government is still considering implementing this measure.

“The financial secretary will say [it] was not her recommendation to elevate the tax on foods high in sugar, salt, and transfats as a revenue measure, but for the deterrent effect it is perceived that this could have,” he said. “I am advised that there is an expanding body of literature supporting the effectiveness of fiscal policies such as these in reducing the consumption of unhealthy foods, drinks, and substances, so my cabinet will be looking at this in a very serious way.”

Harris said other health concerns in the federation included hypertension and diabetes, both that are the leading causes of morbidity.

“The incidence of hypertension has remained fairly stable [during] the period 2010-2015, with approximately 107 new cases per annum,” he said. “During that same period, the incidence of diabetes has trended upward, with a mean of 95 cases per annum.”

He added that the top three medical conditions treated at the JNF Hospital A & E room were asthma, diabetes and hypertension, while individuals accessing care at the out-patient department have multimorbidity of two or more chronic illnesses

“It is not one complaint…it is more than one taking our people down,” Harris said. “In this case, it is diabetes, hypertension and cardiac disease that are at play.”

Harris also revealed that there has also been a 25 percent increase of incidence of cancer in the federation between the period 2005-2015.

“The most prevalent of such conditions are cervix, breast, prostate and skin cancer,” he said. “Women are mostly affected between the ages 50 to 59 and [for] men, the challenge comes a bit later, [ages] 60-79.”

He also stated that there is an obesity problem among the general population.

“We also have to be aware that obesity is being estimated to be in 40 percent of the general population, and I know some may look at me, and I may look at the deputy commissioner of police, and [I can] advise you that we are working hard to take ourselves out of that category.

“In 2011, the National School Healthy Survey revealed that 32.5 percent of our secondary school children were overweight and 14.4 percent were obese, so we have to have greater activity in and out of school if we are going to deal with [these] challenge[s].”