Barbados and Mexico Lead Global Efforts to Prevent NCDs by Curbing Unhealthy Food
An advertisement from the Healthy Caribbean Alliance advocating front-of-package warning labels.

Barbados recently imposed a 20% tax on sugary drinks, while Mexico, Chile and Uruguay, have introduced warning labels on food packaging to curb unhealthy eating – a key driver of obesity, diabetes and other non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

Mexico also has restricted the marketing of junk food to children, including sports sponsorships as it battles one of the highest rates of obesity in the world.

But interference from industries that produce unhealthy ultra-processed food and sugary drinks is undermining countries’ efforts to control food, according to speakers at a side event on curbing NCDs through healthier diets at the World Health Assembly in Geneva.

Ian Gooding-Edghill, the Barbados Minister of Health and Wellness, told the event his country had first imposed a 10% tax on sugary drinks, but that had only reduced consumption by 4.3%.

 “This was, in our opinion, far from what was required to have a significant impact,” said Gooding-Edghill, whose country now has one of the highest taxation rates in the world.

“The prevalence of diabetes is approximately 18% of the country and the obesity prevalence rate for those persons who are 25 years and older, is 33.8%.”

The Caribbean region, which imports a lot of packaged goods, is also tackling warning labels as a region.

Ian Gooding-Edghill, the Barbados Minister of Health and Wellness

Junk food kills more than tobacco

Jordan’s Princess Dina Mired, who is the NCD Ambassador for Vital Strategies, told the gathering that “junk food now claims more lives than tobacco”.

“In the decades since ultra-processed foods appeared on supermarket shelves, they have been aggressively promoted and marketed around the world, displacing traditional and healthier foods and diets,” she added.

“There is even some debate about whether ultra-processed foods can be called food at all. They do not resemble anything you can prepare in a kitchen. Made from ingredients that use industrial processes, these harmful products are appealing as they are preserved, packaged, convenient and ready to eat,” said Princess Dina.

“Ultra-processed products are exposing billions of people to a higher risk of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke and obesity. Obesity has nearly tripled since 1975— today, 2 billion people are overweight or obese.”

She criticised the World Health Organization’s (WHO) “best buys” to address NCDs for not going far enough in regard to “making the link between rising NCD rates and ultra-processed foods”.

Vital Strategies’ Nandita Murukutla

Meanwhile, Nandita Murukutla, vice-president of global policy and research at Vital Strategies, said that industry interference was preventing countries from acting against ultra-processed food and drink.

She highlighted a paper that was published in The Lancet in 2021 that found only a third of the WHO’s recommended policies to address NCDs were being implemented by member states. 

“Policies on tobacco control, except for graphic health warnings, junk foods and alcohol marketing were among the least well implemented,” said Murukutla, adding that “conflict of interest and industry interference, were the chief contributors in delays in implementation”. Latin America has one of the highest obesity rates in the world, and ultra-processed beverages are often more accessible than clean water or fresh food and other healthy options. 

Simon Barquera, executive director of the Nutrition and Health Research Center at Mexico’s National Institute of Public Health.

Simon Barquera, executive director of the Nutrition and Health Research Center at Mexico’s National Institute of Public Health, said that more than 80% of deaths in Mexico are due to NCDs. 

“More than 100,000 deaths every year are due to diabetes, and more than 40,000 deaths per year are a consequence of a sugar, sugary drink consumption,” added Barquera.

“And we’re one of the countries with the highest ultra-processed food consumption.”

Mexico has been trying to “modify” this food environment for more than 20 years, but “it has been very hard”, he acknowledged. 

“The soda tax took us 14 years of developing evidence and doing attempts at the Congress with the President in the Ministry of Health. The front-of-pack labels took us about 11 years.”

Mexico had successfully curbed marketing to children through an alliance of civil society, academia and government officials. But much of this marketing was now digital – which made international collaboration essential, said Barquera.

“Companies don’t like tweets that are international, exposing what these multinational companies are doing in our countries.”

The event was organised by NCD Alliance, Vital Strategies, World Obesity Federation, and the Ministry of Health and Wellness of Barbados.

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