Kuala Lumpur, 08 January 2018 – Last month’s announcement by Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi of thirteen health-related policies, are indicative of the dire state of health of Malaysians where one in two adults are either overweight or obese, and an estimated 20 percent of the population will have diabetes by 2020. Bold and aggressive policy action is needed to address the ongoing health crisis of non-communicable diseases, which are the leading cause of death and morbidity in this country. But are these new or improved policies going to be sufficient and will they be effective?
“The proposed policy changes are a mixed bag and marks a significant turning point. If Malaysians don’t take their health into their own hands, it is not surprising that to combat both declining health levels and rising healthcare costs, the government is willing to use policies and legislation to do it for them,” said Azrul Mohd Khalib, Chief Executive of the Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy.
“Early closure of eateries is a step in the right direction. Studies show that when food is consumed late at night, glucose and insulin levels increase significantly, leading to weight gain and Type 2 diabetes. Encouraging fitness activities through tax exemptions, cheaper sports equipment and increasing the number of sports facilities will also help incentivise and promote adoption of lifelong healthy habits.”
“Introducing an excise tax on sugary drinks, should be considered carefully. Mexico experienced decreases in beverage sales after enacting a 10 percent soda tax in 2014. But in other countries such as France (2012), Hungary (2012) and Finland (2016), its effects and effectiveness in reducing non-communicable diseases remain to be seen. If this tax is to be imposed, the revenue collected should be directly channeled towards the subsidisation of fruits and vegetables as recommended by the World Health Organisation. This would prevent overall food bills, particularly those of lower income households, from increasing.”
“Influencing what people buy by making healthy food options more affordable to increase their consumption has been shown to be the most effective policy in reducing the number of overweight and obese people,” Azrul emphasised.
“We have to also go beyond guidelines and enforce healthy food standards in schools and hostels nationwide to improve the quality and nutrition of meals served to Malaysian schoolchildren, 15 percent of whom are now obese. Education and awareness campaigns which have been around for decades are clearly insufficient. We need to ensure that our children actually have healthy school meals.”
“Eating and physical activity behaviours are complex and influenced by many factors, including the cost of living. Introducing indicators such as body mass index and NCDs into the job performance appraisal process for civil servants to force them into being healthy, could end up victimising and marginalising people instead, particularly those of lower income.”
“A single policy measure on its own is not going to be the magic bullet. There is also a limit to legislating health. We cannot choose for people, they have to choose for themselves. The bottom line is that Malaysians must choose to change the way they produce and consume food.”
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