Health campaigns must be concerted and supported by every government body

Malaysians are not drastically changing their lifestyles despite the millions spent by the Government to woo them with health campaigns. Are Malaysians lackadaisical and to be solely blamed for the ineffectiveness of the various health drives initiated, and for taxpayers’ money pumped into these campaigns going to waste?

The Government and the people should not be too shocked with the recent disclosure that more than RM500 million spent on health campaigns by the Health Ministry since the 1980s has not produced the desired lifestyle changes.

In a nutshell, what this means is that the message is either not reaching ordinary Malaysians or not having the needed impact to motivate them to transform their lives.  Before we put the blame squarely on the shoulders of the people, we need to examine side-by-side the millions going into health campaigns against the advertising and patronage extended to the multinational corporations which produce the very products that are targeted.

Health campaigns can only work if there is a concerted government effort and is not ‘sabotaged’ by other ministries proffering  support to the advertising, promotion, and cultivation of these products.

We are all familiar with the RM100 million ‘Tak nak’ campaign launched by then Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in early 2004 and the aspiration to create a smoke-free environment in government premises and offices.

Many things were stacked against the success of this campaign. One in particular is Malaysia hosting the largest tobacco trade conference and exposition the following year (2005) of the launch, with the Health Ministry’s suggested prohibition of the event overturned by political influence. And our elected representatives and government leaders/officials continue to make a mockery of the proposed smoke-free environment in government buildings by puffing away in air-conditioned office lounges and in the lobby of Parliament and state assembly buildings.

Youths are perennially exposed to the brand names of cigarettes through tobacco companies’ sponsorship of popular events like football, badminton, and concerts. How are people to take the government seriously when the Health Ministry’s anti-smoking stand is not supported, overtly or openly, by other ministries, agencies and leaders. The pro-smoking message speaks loud and clear, as tobacco is aggressively promoted through association with sports excellence and its cultivation actively promoted by the government.

Tobacco companies remain the top advertisers in Malaysia. They are able to stay clear of the advertising regulations by introducing accessories, clothing lines, and other products to their brand names. Tobacco companies successfully catch teenagers and youths with their linking of cigarettes to major sporting events, concerts and products of interest to this target group.About 50% of Malaysian men and some 30% of adolescent boys (12-18 years) smoke. Malaysian girls and women are also fast picking up the habit.

Then there is the Healthy Living Campaign that the Health Ministry initiated in 1991, followed by the campaign to reduce sugar in the late 1990s as well as the ‘Less Sugar’ campaign launched in March 2010.

The campaign was to get people to eat healthily, reduce their sugar intake, exercise, and generally observe a healthy llifestyle. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), food and diet contribute substantially to the health of the individual.

In Malaysia, sugar consumption far exceeds the recommended daily intake of not more than 50g – or equivalent 10 teaspoons a day – of the WHO and the Malaysia Dietary Guidelines 2010. Sugar intake among Malaysians is actually getting higher every year.

In fact, the Domestic Trade, Co-operatives and Consumerism Ministry’s data shows the total sugar intake by Malaysians as 71.5g per day in the year 2002, increasing to 75.6g per day in 2007. And distribution of domestic sugar increased from 651,973.12 metric tons in 2004 to 806,381.88 metric tons in 2009.

High sugar intake can lead to dental caries, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. In 1996, 16% of Malaysian adults were overweight and 4% obese, and this increased to 29.1% overweight and 14% obese in 2006. Obesity increases the risk to diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.

The campaign for less sugar and healthy eating seems a determined approach by only a single government agency, which is left to handle the problem of growing obesity among kids on its own. We have seen spurts of support from the Ministry of Education only recently, with stronger guidelines proposed against sugar-rich or snack foods sold by canteen operators and outside school compounds.

It is therefore not surprising that Malaysia occupies the top spot in Southeast Asia, sixth in Asia and 39th in the world for obesity, according to WHO statistics. We are also placed 7th in Asia and 44th in the world for overweight individuals.

There is an upward trend of obesity among Malaysian kids and adults. It is obviously clear that our health campaigns cannot match the aggressive, high-cost promotions by sugar-rich food and beverage companies, as well as by fast-food corporations. There is a fast-food culture created from small among our kids, which is compounded by unhealthy snacks and rich foods sold in school canteens.

The government should act now, act concertedly and act with a single-minded purpose to bring out a change in the mindset of Malaysians, and get them to adopt healthy lifestyles, be it smoking, alcohol or dietary habits.  All government agencies must work for the interest of the people instead of turning a blind eye, keeping silent or throwing their support to these offending companies lest their corporate sponsorships comes to a halt. Let us all remember that “health is wealth”.

The Consumers Association of Penang (CAP) calls for the federal government ministries to exhibit a united front and undertake serious campaigns, which are matched and supported by strict regulations and control. Otherwise, the campaign actions will not bear fruit and it would be just money down the drain since the Health Ministry’s measures are circumvented by most, if not all, other ministries.

People must know that there is a real danger lurking, and they must be convinced to change their habits and lifestyle, by a well-intentioned government. There must be strong preventive policies and legislations, not half-hearted ones that are doomed to fail and will clearly fall on deaf ears.

Letter to the Editor – 6 June 2011