According to the Bloomberg Global Health Survey in 2012, Singapore has emerged top as the healthiest nation in the world. This is in part due to our highly efficient healthcare system, as well as the major role played by HPB in promoting healthy living among Singaporeans.
Yet let us not rest on our laurels. We need to do more to promote healthy living, with regards to obesity and smoking. Obesity is of particular concern. While our obesity rates are much lower than that of the OECD average of 17%, USA 34% and Australia 25%, our statistics show that Singaporeans are getting fatter. Obesity in Singapore rose from 6.9% in 2004 to close to 11% in 2010. Coupled with a global obesity pandemic, more food choices and affluence in Singaporeans, we face an uphill task.
In our fight against obesity, there is a role for the Ministry of Health to consider strengthening food advertising. This would follow international norms where many countries, like UK and South Korea, have already regulated the food advertising market. Countries like Finland, Denmark and Malaysia have also set out government guidelines on food advertising. Children in particular are of concern as most of the time they are easily influenced by temptations in persuasive advertisements.
The health of the individual is very much affected by the consumption of the type of food. Many of our school children consume meals sold in the canteens. In order to minimize the consumption of unhealthy and junk food, the ministry should consider mandating that only healthy diet be served in school canteens. To encourage Singaporeans to eat healthily, the government can consider making healthier choice products sold in supermarkets cheaper and more affordable. Take for example, a carton of sugar-free soya milk will cost about 20-30 cents more than its normal sweetened alternative.
While the government has imposed controls on harmful products like cigarettes, it is worrying that the prevalence of smokers amongst the young and the ladies are increasing. The recent extension of the smoking ban is also a step in the right direction. Non smokers will have more reprieve from second hand smoke and avoid the harmful effects of second hand smoke. While we have banned smokers from lighting up in public places, it would not eradicate the harmful habit of smoking.
Smoking has been linked to many medical conditions including ischemic heart disease, chronic obstructive lung diseases and cancers. We can do more to eradicate this harmful habit among Singaporeans. One radical suggestion would be to gradually introduce a ban on smoking on certain segments of the population. For instance, the ministry can consider totally banning the sale of tobacco related products to cohorts of citizens born after a certain year. While it is often difficult to make smokers change their habits and quit smoking, this would gradually eradicate the habit in the next generation of Singaporeans as they would not be exposed to the bad habit of smoking.
While looking after one’s health and well-being is an individual choice and responsibility, the government can facilitate and encourage Singaporeans to do so. Thinking out of the box: the ministry can consider working with the insurance industry, or even medishield to incentivise Singaporeans to lead a healthy lifestyle. This can be in the form of insurance rebates or further premium reduction.
Let’s us all work towards keeping Singapore a Healthy and Happy nation!