Junk Food in the Line of Fire

Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan has backed the impending introduction of guidelines on junk food advertising – as latest statistics on Friday showed the rate of diabetes here has risen to a 12-year high.

According to the latest national health survey – which is done once every six years – 11.3 per cent of adults aged between 18 and 69 years are diabetic, compared to 8.2 per cent in 2004 and 9 per cent in 1998.

The good news, though, is that high cholesterol and hypertension rates have gone down. The hypertension rate has dropped to 23.5 per cent this year from 26.8 per cent in 2004, while that for high cholesterol has fallen to 17.4 per cent from 19.1 per cent over the same period.

It was clear the country’s rising obesity rate – based on the same survey but revealed by the Health Promotion Board (HPB) earlier this month – was not far from Mr Khaw’s mind as he spoke at the National Health Award on Friday.

Mr Khaw reiterated that “obesity and development are not Siamese twins”.

“The Japanese and the Koreans have remained slim. Their obesity prevalence at 4 per cent … is less than half of ours. We must understand their approach and see if it can be adopted here,” said Mr Khaw.

The Health Minister added that one way to reverse the rising obesity rate was to roll out guidelines to protect children against indiscriminate advertising of unhealthy food and drinks – something that the HPB has said it will be doing,

Some countries such as Sweden and the United Kingdom have imposed outright bans on junk food advertising on television channels and programmes targeted at children. Malaysia has banned fast-food firms from sponsoring TV shows for children or advertising on children’s programmes.

However, the bans have reportedly not succeeded in bringing down obesity rates.

Dr Nancy Tan, a paediatrician with SBCC Baby and Child Clinic, noted that often, a child picks up eating habits from his or her family. Many of her obese patients also have overweight family members.

Dr Tan told MediaCorp: “You take away the advertisements but the shops are still there … (also) you can have tons of salad with tons of salad cream. It’s how much you eat.”

To promote a healthier diet among children, the Ministry of Health (MOH) said it plans to spread the message to pregnant women as well as parents of pre-schoolers.

On Friday, a national tripartite committee also released a report calling for more health promotion initiatives for small-and-medium sized companies, and to work with unions and trade associations.

Said MediaCorp chief executive and HPB chairman Lucas Chow, who co-chairs the committee: “If we do not try to arrest the problem as early as you can … by the time this working population reaches 50, the percentage of chronic illnesses will definitely increase.”

The latest health survey also found there are more smokers, with a bigger rise among youth: This year’s survey found that 14.3 per cent of adults and 16.3 per cent of youth (aged 16 to 29 years) smoke daily, compared to 12.6 per cent and 12.3 per cent respectively in 2004.

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