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Fuad: T&T at crisis stage with obesity

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Should T&T introduce a “fat tax” as a means to combat obesity among our population, ranked the third fattest in the world? This intriguing position is dealt with by Health Minister Dr Fuad Khan, who is warning about the health risks caused by the consumption of foods which he says should be eaten in moderation. Dr Khan stresses that obesity is not a problem facing T&T alone; it is an international phenomenon and those who don’t hear will feel the very negative consequences.



Q: I am surprised, Dr Khan, that you are still in this chair today, since the last time we spoke a few months ago you intimated you were quitting in order to service your patients, who were in need of your care.
A: (In his ministry at Park Street, Port-of-Spain, Thursday morning) That is true, but I did not give any departure date. I still have a lot of patients and I would give them counsel on the phone, telling them what to do, how to do it and so on.



Is T&T unique in not allowing cabinet ministers to perform their professional practice privately in tandem with their ministerial portfolio?
Clevon, I did not check it out, I went in accordance with the Prime Minister, who felt a certain way, and I abided by it.



But personally, do you see a conflict in undertaking both at the same time?
The thing about it is that I am responsible for the disciplining of doctors and other health professionals, so it makes sense.



Minister Khan, long before this report came out recently, which ranks Trinbagonians as the third most obese in the world, you have been advocating proper eating habits?
Yes, and when you look at it people are responsible for their own health, they are responsible to get educated and there is information all around which would indicate exactly what would happen if you don’t take care of yourself … you could end up with heart diseases, heart attack, hypertension, diabetes, kidney diseases, right?



You seem to have something against fast foods.
Not really. They can be had in moderation. Fast foods contain MSG and other unhealthy substances.



If Trinis are not voluntarily looking after their own health, do you think there would come the time when there should be compulsory restrictions on what we consume?
(Quickly responding) Well, Japan has done it already, you know. I mean, look we belong to a society … in fact, look what I am reading here (Reaches for a book, The Singapore Story, written by former prime minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew). I am reading that, and he has taken some significant actions to bring his country from where it was to where it is.



What exactly has Japan done in this regard?
What I want to say is that Japan has introduced a tax to companies which is an overall “fat tax,” and they are tackling the fast-food industry, which has the MSG, and all those additives which result in endorphins which are sent to your tongue and your brain, and which give you that beautiful feeling of satisfaction and a high, which makes you want more.


Now I do not intend to ask our people to do that (laughs). As you are aware, we are doing the educational aspects of it: we have the Fight the Fat programme throughout the region, we are going on the air with programmes, we are doing the partners’ programmes with the manufacturers, as well as all people in the industry.  



Dr Khan, even though apparently the majority of citizens are not adhering to the many messages advising us to take care of our health with respect to what we consume, are you thinking of giving up on this mission to have us become a more health-conscious nation?
I am very seriously pushing this, and I would tell you why: because, Clevon (a thoughtful countenance), if we don’t get a harness on this now we are going to pay the price of hospital beds on non-communicable diseases such as heart attacks, diabetes and hypertension.


And if you look at all aspects of the hospital in terms of what we are paying for, we are actually, as a population, paying for the profits of the fast-food industry … they are putting in those additives to make you addicted to those foods which are not good for you, but we are paying for it down the road.



With all those facts at your—meaning the ministry’s—disposal are there any sanctions you can…
(Anticipating the question with a pained expression) You can’t, you can’t…



...impose with regard to protecting the health of those individuals?
I was telling you about Japan and if those companies’ employees do not have a certain waist size and other specifics, those companies are going to be taxed more because they are causing the health costs to rise.



From your vantage point, Dr Khan, do you really believe Trinbagonians care about their personal health and well-being?
I am not saying stop it, eh? I am saying do it in moderation, don’t go cold turkey and stop it. People should cook more at home. Clevon, I would tell you something, I used to eat out a lot and every time I did it, half an hour after my head is hurting me, my back and neck hurting me, I am getting headaches, dry mouth and my heart start to race fast. So when I checked it out, and all those were the effects relating to MSG, I began getting the effects right after.


And when I started to cook and eat at home, all those effects were gone. So I decided to eat at home, and whenever I do eat out I watch exactly what I eat.



Dr Khan, on a scale of one to ten, how health-conscious do you feel the average Trini is?
I would say less than ten per cent of the population pay focused attention on what we eat. People eat when we are hungry or when we want a comfort when emotionally upset, right? When they do not have anything else to do. It is a filler. We are talking about eating, we are not talking about the alcohol, eh? (Sipping black coffee from tea cup) 



Is it a fact, doctor, that our eating…
(Interrupting)—and drinking —



... habits are causing a tremendous …
(Anticipating again)—a hell of a burden on our financial resources … the amount of money that is being spent on non-communicable diseases, as I mentioned earlier, is tremendous. I mean, it is crazy.



Would you agree, Minister Khan, that we have reached crisis stage?
Yes, it is a worldwide epidemic. Not just us.



Are you still maintaining that there is no way some mandatory sanctions can be imposed now that we have reached this critical stage?
How can we do that when people may criticise us, saying we are displaying dictatorial behaviour? As I said earlier, Clevon, the people must take responsibility for their own health. It is in their interest to do so and failing that, as the old people would say, those who can’t hear would feel. They cannot have it both ways.



Finally, Dr Khan, is it your feeling that National Security Minister Austin Jack Warner is being unfairly attacked in the media?
All is fair in love and war, and Warner, being one of the strongest members of the UNC, would be a major target by the Opposition. One thing we must remember is that nothing concrete has been laid at his doorstep. Until that time, if it ever should come, so be it. And calls for his resignation have been made only by his local detractors.


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