NGOs blame NCDs on junk food, smoking, quacks

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Cancer Society chair Dr Asante Le Blanc – File photo

THE rise in lifestyle diseases is largely the fault of companies marketing junk food to children, a rise in vaping and cannabis smoking, and a prevalence of dubious alternative remedies in light of an overburdened public health system.

This is what a virtual hearing of Parliament’s Joint Select Committee (JSC) on Social Services and Public Administration was told on March 20.

Cancer Society chair Dr Asante Le Blanc, Diabetes Association president Dr Andre Dhanoo and Heart Foundation manager Amit Maharaj appeared before the JSC, chaired by Independent Senator Dr Paul Richards.

They lamented a lack of funding for NGOs fighting non-communicable diseases (NCDs) and lengthy waits for treatment at public hospitals.

Le Blanc highlighted the effects of vaping, tobacco smoking and cannabis smoking.

She urged Trinidad and Tobago to ban the advertising of vaping as supposedly relatively harmless, just as tobacco advertising has been banned.

Le Blanc said “electronic cigarettes” were not included in regulations under the Tobacco Control Bill.

“We need to address this, because vaping has become a huge epidemic in Trinidad and Tobago. When we are allowing the advertising of vaping to our teens as something to do and a way to quit smoking, when it is really a way to hook them on to smoking and other drug use…And when we are allowing ads on TV, on radio, on social media, we have a problem.

“If our World Health Organization is saying vaping is bad, how on earth are we not making a change? What are we waiting for?”

Richards asked if there was a lacuna (gap) in the tobacco law that currently allows vaping ads, and Le Blanc said yes.

“The same tobacco industry is manipulating it. They are saying, ‘Don’t smoke, vape!’

“It is being touted as something safe and fashionable and it is wrong, and we have the data to prove it.

“We have to nip this in the bud.”

Replying to a question from Chaguanas East MP Vandana Mohit, Le Blanc said via the Ministries of Health and Education and with the support of Republic and Scotia Banks, the Cancer Society has visited schools to lobby against smoking and vaping. She wanted more input from the two ministries against all NCDs.

“You are having 30-something year olds dying of heart attacks. Because between the smoking, the vaping, the energy drinks, and everything else, there is no proper lifestyle.

“So we have to do something. We are losing the younger members of our population, not only the older sector, and this is with the NCDs.”

Richards asked if the decriminalisation of cannabis was contributing to the prevalence of cancer.

Le Blanc replied yes. She said the rise was due to both the marijuana and the fact of something hot going into the lungs.

“Heat will change the epithelial lining.

“Smoking marijuana in any form will put you at risk of cancer and other NCDs.”

Dhanoo, in reply to Mohit, urged action against companies marketing junk food to children and against unqualified quacks promoting dubious cure-all health remedies.

On diabetes, he urged an intervention with toddlers – the age at which habits are formed – plus their parents, to teach them how to cook and curb snack consumption.

Dhanoo said, “There are a suite of interventions that can be done which have been proven to increase the health of a population.

“These include taxation, limiting marketing, frontal package labelling.”

He believed the two latter would work best in Trinidad and Tobago.

“Every single newspaper you open, every time you turn on the TV, you see a fast-food ad. If we try to out-advertise them, it is not possible.”

He said companies should be restricted in advertising unhealthy foods, especially to children.

“Marketing to children, you are getting them to love your food. You are sponsoring their cricket clubs and football clubs. You are giving them scholarships.

“These things need to be stopped.”

Dhanoo lamented ads in school cafeterias.

“You see posters up and you enter the competition and you win the soft drink.”

Dhanoo urged front-of-package labelling to warn of foods high in sugar, salt and trans fats.

He also urged action against quacks offering supposed cures to people with NCDs, some who may fear hospitals, but could end up in hospital for a diabetic amputation.

“All of these bush people are calling themselves doctors, claiming they could cure everything known to man – and they are going to these people.”

Such patients go to hospital too late, after gangrene has set in to a limb, and they face amputation, he recalled.

“This is one of the reasons we are having all these late-stage diabetic amputations.

“These things are being allowed and people are spending millions of dollars.

“Everywhere you look you see these things popping up and people are calling themselves doctors of this and that, and they are are not. And we are not dealing with it.”

Dhanoo urged legislation to curb this practice.

He also warned against pharmaceuticals brought in to Trinidad and Tobago by suitcase traders.

Otherwise, Richards lamented cases of heart patients having to wait one-two years for treatment, during which time they become severely ill.

Le Blanc earlier said the public health sector often prescribed antiquated drugs to treat breast and prostate cancers, for which newer drugs had been approved but not yet supplied sufficiently, leaving patients to pay privately or face the consequences.