Letters & Opinion

Tasting and Testing the Bitterness of Sweet Drinks

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Chronicles Of A Chronic Caribbean Chronicler By Earl Bousquet

It’s easy to mistake the recent announcement by Saint Lucia’s Ministry of Education of the temporary suspension of the ban on sale of carbonated “soft drinks” on school premises as a climb-down, instead of an accommodation.

Government considered the issues at stake and took what the Health Ministry considered the best approach for the healthy future of the island’s children.

The decision would have been taken on the basis of scientific evidence proven to be accurate and actions implemented successfully elsewhere, but some parents and teachers, including principals, saw it fit to oppose the decision based on an alleged absence of consultation.

The arguments offered (by parents and teachers who’ve spoken on the issue) do not add-up to anything sufficient to justify continuing to allow the nation’s children at home and school, to continue innocently drinking eventually harmful carbonated sweet drinks.

Some even argue that when it comes to sweetness, sugar and honey are just as bad as chemical sweeteners and concentrates, but such arguments have been fully laid elsewhere — and answered – and unless the critics are claiming Saint Lucian homo sapiens are different from the rest of the world’s, the answers should also apply here and everywhere.

This is not the first time a Labour Administration has reversed an earlier decision, as, during the stint of Mr. Felix Finnisterre as Minister for Communications & Works, the Cabinet overnight reversed a decision to institute one-way traffic along the hilly and narrow Morne Du Don Road in Castries.

Minibus drivers had threatened to strike and owners of private vehicles parked on both sides insisted on having a supposed right to park them directly on the main road, on their doorsteps or entrances to their homes.

But then too, ‘Putting People First’ was treated as a Last Post.

In the current case, however, the ban on sale of soft drinks around school premises is a broader and deeper national health issue that cannot and should not be approached in the same way.

Instead, good sense must prevail in the government’s consideration of the interest of the nation’s children and students’ health, while adults are free to decide which sweeteners they prefer (sugar or honey) to sweeten home-made juices.

Like with cigarettes, sugar’s harm has been historically documented and today, the global trend is to reduce on the use of sugar, whether through direct use or artificial sweeteners, to which the manufacturers have responded with ‘diet’ versions of their sweet drinks.

Indeed, even Barbados, a primary Caribbean sugar producer, is reeling under the revelation of the unhealthy effects national historical addiction to sugar — so much so, that the Mia Mottlety administration just last weekend announced it will no longer commit $30 million annually to sugar production and will therefore privatize government’s interests in local sugar by the end of this financial year.

Saint Lucia likewise, declared the World’s Diabetes Capital in 2016, needs to wake-up to the connections between sugar’s sweetness and the bitterness of diabetes, as we’ve not sufficiently (in my view) done enough, then and now, to put the negative title to positive use by internationalizing our problem and inviting global participation in solutions.

Suitable related starting initiatives were undertaken, but Regime Change and other political factors led to cancellation of agreements before implementation, without adequate replacement, the nation since then continuing to wallow in the wilderness of insufficient related care for diabetics and hypertensive persons.

Like with the cigarette and alcohol lobbies historically, vested interests can and should be understandably expected to disagree with and actively oppose any ban on sweet drinks.

But at the end of the day, it’s the government of the day’s duty and responsibility to take decisions and actions it deems in national interest, including national Health and Wellness – and in this case, actions that will lower health risks among students and children.

The arguments For and Against will include whether ‘banning’ sale of carbonated and otherwise artificially-sweetened soft drinks is the right way to go, whether it will encourage invention of new ways to beat the ban, or whether the public is ready to adjust to the effects of a ban.

Similar arguments played out recently in the UK, where the government, once and for all, has taken measures to reduce the ease of availability of artificially-sweetened drinks – and also to introduce an outright ban on single-use (one-time) plastic cups, plates and utensils.

The Sunak administration, just weeks ago opted against an outright ban on carbonated soft drinks and instead opted to make them more costly by adding new taxes according to levels of use of artificial sweeteners that make sweet drinks bitter — and bad for good health.

Indeed, as of 14 November 2022, new UK taxes were introduced on sweet drinks manufacturers, as follows: 18p per litre on soft drinks containing between 5g and 8g of sugar per 100ml and 24p per litre on soft drinks containing more than 8g of sugar per 100ml.

This is a science-based calculation of how to charge producers of the sweet bitterness children swallow all day long at home, school and play; and the jury is still out as to whether UK parents will willingly (and supposedly democratically) adjust to the new prices, or opt to save money in these hard times, or to preserve, lengthen and save children and students’ lives.

But whether in the UK, Saint Lucia or any other Caribbean nation, such price adjustments will also have to be accompanied by sufficiently sustained, robust and effective education and messaging campaigns, starting with (but not only limited to) public and private media, as well as manufacturers and consumers, parents, teachers and students.

Such a campaign should also be sufficiently national and ongoing as to set and achieve measurable targets along the long road to reducing the sweetness of soft drinks that can actually be more bitter and bad, than better for national Health and Wellness.

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