A public health concern
About a fourth of the country’s total population is overweight and obese and the number is projected to further increase by the end of the decade, particularly among Filipino adolescents. That risk is heightened by the unregulated access of young students to sweetened drinks and junk food, which could later cause debilitating illnesses like heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, and cancer — among the leading causes of death in the country.
Department of Health (DOH) officer in charge Maria Rosario Vergeire called the rise in obesity a “public health concern” and urged lawmakers to introduce additional excise taxes on sweetened beverages, junk food, and “nonstaple” food high in salt, fat, and calorie content. “This is already a public health concern because we know that they are at high risk to develop these diseases,” said Vergeire.
This is not the first time that the government has eyed a higher sugar levy and a new tax on junk food. Two years ago, the Department of Finance already proposed the measures to raise much-needed funds for the government’s COVID-19 response. The call for the two tax measures is now being revived amidst concerns over Filipinos’ unhealthy diets worsened by the pandemic, when lockdowns forced people to maintain sedentary lifestyles and depend on take-out food that is usually packed with high sodium and calorie content.
Last March, the DOH, together with other organizations including the World Health Organization and the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), raised the alarm on growing obesity in the country and called for a whole-of-society approach. They cited the latest survey by the Department of Science and Technology’s Food and Nutrition Research Institute showing that about 27 million Filipinos were overweight and obese. The number of overweight and obese adults almost doubled from 20.2 percent in 1998 to 36.6 percent in 2019, while that of adolescents more than doubled from 4.9 percent in 2003 to 11.6 percent in 2018. “If no action is taken, overall rates of overweight and obesity will continue to rise. It is projected that more than 30 percent of Filipino adolescents will be overweight and obese by 2030,” Unicef warned.
To add to the efforts of curbing unhealthy eating habits, especially among the youth, a senator has filed a bill banning junk food and sugary drinks from primary and secondary schools, arguing that healthy food plays an important role in the learning and cognitive development of children. Senate Bill No. 1231 seeks to fine owners or operators of canteens, eateries, or restaurants selling unhealthy food and drinks inside the premises or within 100 meters of public or private schools, as well as suspend their license.
Two similar measures have been filed at the House of Representatives. One of the bills cites the Department of Education’s Department Order No. 13, series of 2017, which directs schools to ensure that the food and drinks available to students are healthy and nutritious. It noted that children spend a large portion of their time in schools, where parents are unable to monitor what they eat. These junk food and sweetened drinks, experts said, are marketed particularly toward children, with some even claiming “health benefits” such as providing them with more energy and “vitamins.”
But the burden of ensuring healthy eating habits shouldn’t be placed on schools alone. The documentary “Junk Food Kids: Who’s To Blame” took a look at why one-third of British children were overweight or obese by examining their eating habits, particularly at home. A boy was diagnosed to have fatty liver, at 13 years old—a disease that is common among middle-aged obese adults. A four-year-old child suffered from rotten teeth, which the doctor blamed on sweets and hygiene, and had to have surgery to remove them. The doctors in the documentary said the root of the problem for these obese children was not medical—it was what they ate at home. A mother, when asked about the unhealthy food her children consumed at home, replied that it was “convenient.”
Convenience is obviously the most common reason why children turn to unhealthy food—they’re very accessible and readily available. Banning them from schools and taxing them can discourage students and their parents from buying them in the first place. If the excise tax on tobacco products helped curb the country’s smoking problem—the DOH claimed smoking prevalence decreased to 20 percent in 2019 from 31 percent in 2008—then an excise tax on unhealthy food products can also help address the junk food problem.
Studies have shown that overweight and obese children are likely to be obese as adults and develop diseases that could cause death. The obesity problem, however, remains to be overlooked because much of the focus has been on hunger and malnutrition—yet it is time for the government, nongovernment organizations, and families to work together in providing interventions to reduce the obesity problem. It is not only a fundamental right for every child to have adequate nutrition—it will also ensure that the country will have healthy, productive adults in the future.
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