In his attempt to solicit support for his removal of a subsidy on brown sugar, the finance minister sought to sell this entirely fiscal-adjustment measure as inspired by the need to address the prominence of non-communicable diseases in Saint Lucia, especially diabetes.
That shoe-salesman’s pitch was not without its special sweetener and MPs on the government side gobbled it up during the just concluded 2014/2015 Budget. By all they said on the occasion, the opposition seemed to agree too much sugar was bad and went out of their way not to buy the sugar-coated bitter pill that the prime minister sought to sell them.
Meanwhile, as an observer I couldn’t help wondering: Is that the best this government can do for diabetes in Saint Lucia? What had they done for all the diabetics who cannot help themselves and for whom the prime minister’s pill is too little too late?
How impressive it might’ve been had the health minister informed the House of what her ministry was doing about the widespread diabetes plague? Instead government MPs spoke in general terms about the effects of too much sugar, about their own personal habits and so on.
Why couldn’t they have rolled out a solid track record and statistics specifically to illustrate and signify the government’s contribution to a National Diabetes Programme that provides screening, treatment and support, sensitization, education, management and counselling services to the public, and more importantly to people already suffering from the disease. What the government seemed to be saying was that they do not trust the public to exercise their judgement in their own personal best interest.
That approach, along with the citation of the relevant policy document on non-communicable diseases, including diabetes and lifestyles, would have been a far more convincing premise to have adopted in the House.
But to have raised a hue and cry in 2014 that sugar should be made more expensive so as to deter over-consumption by Saint Lucians was duplicitous, an insult to the nation’s intelligence. All their verbiage amounted to was a very, very late and quite convenient response, years shy of a situation which was declared to be dire way back in 2007, when the findings of the study conducted by urologist Dr. Michael Graven (who screened more than 31,000 Saint Lucians) stated that 8.1 per cent of the population was diabetic.
“The state of diabetes in St Lucia is tantamount to a public health disaster, much like a hurricane with catastrophic rates,” Dr. Graven said at the time.
At this time the island is not even attracting the kind of headlines it did back then.
For example, a CMC headline: “St Lucia Has World’s Highest Level of Diabetes – Study” April 13, 2007. Why didn’t the political lobbyists who stood in the House in May of this year call for an increase in the price of brown sugar in 2007? Better late than never? Are we talking here about a government that cares?
One may speculate that if they had done this, the UWP government of the day may have responded positively to their call. Sadly, we may never fully understand why MPs, who surely know better, have made brown sugar the villain, the most lethal product to use if one has diabetes.
Given the emphasis on refined sugar one wonders if a diabetic who does not consume sugar yet drinks and smokes will be any better off? It cannot have escaped those who listened to what passed for a budget debate a few weeks that nothing was done or said to deter people from consuming cigarettes and alcohol.
The relevance of the government’s line of reasoning again becomes dubious when one takes into consideration that many, if not most, of those with the disease actually inherited it. When one analyses the ways in which diabetics control their illness, it may not mean they’re mandated to blacklist sugar (as many will tell you that they need to keep a sweet handy at all times, lest their sugar goes to the other extreme) but instead to limit their consumption of sugar in all its forms; be it from fruits, nuts and vegetables or processed foods.
Moreover diabetes and hypertension go almost hand in glove in this country. So when a patient is diagnosed with both diseases it often means the individual must undertake a major dietary overhaul. So if people are to be penalized for eating unhealthy foods, shouldn’t health-promoting foods be made more affordable?
In 2007, when he was Saint Lucia’s health minister, Stephenson King addressed the diabetes statistics. He said then that the government would make a number of interventions, such as formulating policies and developing programmes to change people’s lifestyles.
“In a sense this information has been timely as the ministry is at a critical juncture where we are seeking to refocus our health programs,” he said back in the day. “This will encourage renewed approaches and develop ideas that will help us fulfill the provision of total health to our people.”
It is fair to imagine that these efforts he alluded to publicly were implemented and have borne fruit. Since government is a continuum, no matter which administration may be holding the reins of leadership, whatever good thing there was should’ve been kept in place and improved. There is no need to embellish. That fiscal measures have to be put in place given our currently shaky economic standing is a given. There is no need for showboating on these matters.
“Mr Speaker, the prominence of non-communicable diseases, especially diabetes in Saint Lucia, alludes to excess consumption of processed foods and refined sugars. When the price paid for an item does not accurately reflect the cost, this
leads to over-indulgence of the item. To avoid perpetuating unhealthy decisions in the population, these items should reflect their true cost.”
This level of reasoning cannot hold for ten cents.
— Alexis B. Montgomery