Tonga was recently declared the fattest country in the world, according to a study on global obesity.
But the Ministry says it's not all bad news.... analysis of the numbers is improving and a four year strategy is under review.
Dr Siale Akauola, is the chief executive at the Tongan Ministry of Health... he told Richard Ewart they have the full support of the government to tackle the epidemic.
B/A: Dr Siale Akauola, chief executive officer of the Tongan Ministry of Health, speaking with Richard Ewart.
AKAUOLA: Definitely, we've been aware of the epidemic of obesity and there has been all of government response to it, of course, spearheaded by the Minister of Health, but it is one of the big issues that this has been planned and been discussed and we've got full commitment by government to respond to all the problems that we expect to be caused by this epidemic of obesity, and, of course, non-communicable diseases in Tonga.
EWART: What is different though about the approach that the government is adopting this time as compared to what you may have done in the past?
AKAUOLA: We do have a strategy to address non-communicable diseases, it's a four year strategy that has been implemented, has been updated. Recently, we have reviewed the governance structure of this strategy and we are planning to strengthen the support given to a National Entity Committee that has been mandated by government to look into this matter. One of the outcome is really better data, because this obesity epidemic has been collected and analysed based on better coordination of that strategy. So I think inspite of the picture that has been painted, I think it comes from better documentation, better data collection and research into this area. But I think just knowing a bit more. We were getting more aggressive in analysing data on this epidemic.
At the same time, we were starting to see some impacts on smoking. I think the latest data shown there seems to be flattening out, there seems to be a positive pip So it's not all doom and gloom.
EWART: I gather that one of the things that you're looking at is increasing taxes on what you might call unhealthy foods. I mean some of those taxes already exist, but you're planning more. I mean which foods are you looking at and what sort of impact do you think this will have?
AKAUOLA: Well, I mean it's still early stages. We have put. we have created, the government has approved a task force to look into this matter and in fact, government has also approved certain taxes to be on unhealthy choices. But we're looking at high sugar, high fat and high salt food targetting those three components. And I think there has, at that stage been overall support by the public to this move and at the moment, it's still a pilot, but we are planning to expand it to other unhealthy choices, so that people. I think one of the things, we make people aware that they are pretty unhealthy. And, of course, although they are pretty cheap at the moment and pretty available, easy accessibility for people, we want to highlight to people that these are not really healthy choices for them to consume.
EWART: Would the revenue raised from such additional taxes go directly into, for example, educating children, putting them off eating these foods in the first place?
AKAUOLA: Well, we are still negotiating on that matter. I mean it has not been earmarked per say towards health promotion activities, but there's still ongoing. I guess it's a work in progress where we're still negotiating with government, trying to work out ways of diverting that fund possibly to health promoting activities, but, it's still a work in progress. But that's the idea, that's the general idea for the future, mmm.
EWART: And there would seem little doubt from what you've said that the government's view of the situation is that they have to get a grip of this situation once and for all?
AKAUOLA: Absolutely. Well, I mean, it is not specific to Tonga, I think it's a similar situation that is being shared by all small Pacific Island countries in the South Pacific. We share similar environment, we share similar vulnerability to all these fast food, processed food and we share the same vulnerability people not being able to make the right choices. So we have a common approach as a regional group to addressing this issue. It's not specific for Tonga, but you are correct. I think the general awareness by governments, by regional or health organisations is very positive and everybody understands that it's here to stay these non-communicable diseases. Now it's a matter of commitment, implementation, monitoring and evaluation and being robust. We have a robust mechanism to make sure that things are moving forward, and, of course, updating the public all the time, and make sure that we get their support.
Presenter: Richard Ewart
Speaker: Dr Siale Akauola, chief executive officer, Tongan Ministry of Health