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Health and wellness must be truly prioritized

The Davis administration has pledged to prioritize public health and wellness initiatives, a commitment in its “Speech from the Throne” which, if paid much more than lip service, could serve as one of the administration’s most important steps in facilitating an improved quality of life for Bahamians.

Though the Ministry of Health has provided very little information on comorbidities of COVID-19 deaths during the pandemic, we know that non communicable disease (NCD) sufferers have been at higher risk of severe COVID illness and mortality.

Together with insufficient physical activity, published health statistics suggest that Bahamians are eating themselves to death, with more data required on the role of stress in the country’s health profile.

A national commitment to stemming the tide of the country’s billion-dollar NCD crisis, could be best accomplished through a working national development plan that does not wind up being shelved when there is a change of government.

Much of the focus on healthy lifestyles initiatives at the pubic health level has been on excess sugar consumption, with an emphasis on sugary drinks due to their high added sugar content per serving, and high average intake of such drinks.

Excess added sugar contributes not only to the development of diabetes, obesity and tooth decay in children, but illnesses including heart disease and cancer.

Consumers who are trying to develop a healthier lifestyle regimen can have difficulty discerning from product labels just how much added sugar they and their loved ones are consuming — a reality that governments are moving to address.

In several Latin American countries, governments have moved to mandate front of pack labeling, which is designed to warn consumers on which products contain high amounts of added sugars as well as salt, saturated fats and trans fats.

Among such countries is Mexico, which passed a law in 2019 mandating front of pack labeling, garnering that country’s government an award from the United Nations Inter-Agency Task Force (UNIATF), which recognizes outstanding contributions for the prevention and control of NCDs, mental health or sustainable development goals associated with NCDs, according to a statement by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO).

PAHO noted, “Countries such as Brazil, Colombia and Canada, among others, are in the process of adopting similar systems. The Americas is now one of the most advanced regions globally, in implementing a key measure aimed at allowing consumers to correctly, quickly, and easily identify products containing excessive amounts of critical nutrients that increase risk of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs).”

Research has demonstrated that regular physical activity not only can add years to one’s life, but quality to one’s years.

A key way the Davis administration can prioritize public health initiatives is to work toward crafting employee wellness programs with the public service — the country’s single largest employer — taking the lead.

Some private sector companies already offer wellness programs, and government can encourage more to do so as part of a national wellness initiative that offers creative ways to incentivize businesses to join the effort to get Bahamians healthy.

In a 2012 paper on government employee wellness plans in Florida published by the American Heart Association (AHA), the AHA said heart disease alone cost the United States an estimated $444.2 billion annually.

In the paper, Mercedes Carnethon, Ph.D., assistant professor in the department of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, pointed to research that showed companies saving anywhere from $3 to $15 for every $1 spent on health and wellness within 12 to 18 months of implementing a program.

The value of workplace man-hours lost in The Bahamas due to NCDs is not published, but likely substantial.

Boosting food security with a focus on organic agriculture must also be government’s aim in promoting a national healthy lifestyle initiative, in addition to revising the bread basket which in its current state, incentivizes consumption of some of the unhealthiest food choices on the market.

A more holistic approach to public education on adopting a healthy lifestyle is also necessary, with an emphasis on how diet and lifestyle choices impact our body’s ability to ward off illness and disease.