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We must save our children

By COREY CONNELLY Sunday, October 30 2011

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Your health is your wealth.

This slogan has been used for generations to encourage people to live healthy lifestyles by way of regular exercise and the foods they consume.

In this fast-paced world, however, and with the increasing demands placed on people to simply get by, it’s not always possible to eat healthy consistently.

On the flip side, others would argue that eating healthy comes with a price which many can ill afford.

Nevertheless, there is a telling side to the dilemma: how much do advertisers capitalise on this seemingly popular appeal for fast food through the media? What is it about their mode of advertising that enlivens the taste buds in preparation for that succulent piece of KFC or pizza?

Similarly, how has the emphasis on sex, beauty and masculinity in the advertising of alcoholic beverages, cigarettes and other commodities contributed to the health and well-being of consumers? Or has the thrust toward a healthy society been thwarted by the drive to earn those advertising dollars?

Health Minister Dr Fuad Khan spoke out recently about the negative power of advertising, particularly as it relates to at least one aspect of the medical profession: paediatrics.

During his contribution to the 2011/2012 Budget debate in the House of Representatives, Khan signalled his Ministry’s intention to reject donations from fast food companies like Mc Donald’s at State paediatric facilities, in an attempt to curb the spread of obesity and chronic disease.

The move is likely to ruffle feathers among some advertisers in the industry, but Khan last week insisted he had the unequivocal backing of many health care practitioners.

“A lot of health care professionals have been saying exactly what I have been saying in the Parliament,” he told Sunday Newsday, noting he bore no personal grudges with any advertising company in the industry.

“I am not focussing on any one company but I am just saying that we have to focus on healthy lifestyles as well as marketing change, because at the end of the day, it is the taxpayers who have to pay hospitals.”

Khan also admitted that he had not spoken to any stakeholders in the food service sector about the proposed move.

The pending crackdown on poor eating habits, he said, would become part of his Ministry’s core programme for the prevention, care and treatment of chronic, non-communicable diseases such a high blood pressure, stroke, heart attack and certain types of cancer.

The ban, he said, will apply to all fast food companies which used ingredients similar to that of the Mc Donald’s chain of restaurants.

“We have to protect our children and we have to determine now what we are going to do about this,” Khan said in his contribution to the budget.

However, in an immediate reaction, Arcos Dorados, the world’s largest Mc Donald’s franchise, defended its position, saying in a statement that it has helped children’s charities and built communities. It also insisted that its meals were healthy for children and adults.

Dorados stood by its policy of giving to children’s charities, revealing it had raised US$11 million for Ronald Mc Donald House Charities in Latin America. The company, which has recently made a return to the country with a new franchise in Westmoorings, added that it was committed to providing the people of Trinidad and Tobago with high quality meals and excellent service.

Arcos Dorados did admit, however, that it was offering a healthier menu through its Happy Meals package, which included fruit as a fourth item. It said all combinations had less than 600 calories in accordance with World Health Organisation’s (WHO’s) standards for children between the ages of six and ten years old.

Checks by Sunday Newsday revealed last week that Khan’s proposed initiative has, indeed, received some support.

President of the Diabetes Association of Trinidad and Tobago, Carlton Phillip, said the company did not support companies which promised saturated fats and sugar products on their menus. He argued that saturated fats increased cholesterol levels more than any other food.

Ida Le Blanc, of the National Union of Domestic Workers, said in a brief telephone interview on Wednesday that the health and welfare of the nation’s children should be among a country’s top priorities and as such, the organisation supported the move.

Khan, however, admitted that he was yet to conceptualise the policy, but revealed it will be patterned after similar programmes adopted by the WHO and the United Nations General Assembly.

He said, “They have a thrust where they are pushing that the chronic, non-communicable diseases can only be attacked and changed based on healthy lifestyles, proper eating habits and other parameters.”

Khan, a urologist, said November has been designated Chronic Disease Month.

“We are going to put the policy decisions in place based on the utilisation of proper eating habits, proper lifestyles and a determination of what can and cannot be done in the Ministry of Health,” he said.

The Minister said there will also be a thrust toward breast-feeding children, where attempts will be made to combat childhood obesity in youngsters in collaboration with the Ministry of Education.

At present, he told Sunday Newsday, there was a programme in the ministry assessing blood pressure and blood sugar levels among various age groups.

“That is showing an increase in the population at all levels and then we are going to put a policy on proper eating habits and calorie contents,” Khan said.

He lamented that the term “fast food” used by many advertisers was tantamount to junk food.

“Instead of using the term junk food, marketing techniques use the term fast food and instead of using the word “fried”, which has attached to it all sorts of negative eating habits, and you use “fast” instead of junk, the mind does not relate to it,” Khan said.

“So the policy has to take into account the calorie content, the effect of junk food and the subliminal impact of the promotion of junk food on their bodies.”

Khan’s hardline position on the negative effects of subliminal advertising in the health sector, can, indeed, be likened to a similar stance adopted by one of his predecessors, Dr Hamza Rafeeq, in respect of the cigarette industry.

During his stint as health minister in 2000, Rafeeq had launched an all-out war on cigarette advertising. At that time, Rafeeq’s proposed ban, which had generated reactions from the advertising industry, included provisions for the placing of health warnings on cigarette packs.

The country’s lone manufacturer of cigarettes, West Indian Tobacco Co Ltd (WITCO), relinquished sponsorship of the annual sports awards ceremony after former Health Minister Jerry Narace banned tobacco advertising and sponsorship on television, radio and other media in 2008. First Citizens now sponsors the foundation.

WITCO has also removed its tobacco brands, including du Maurier, Broadway and Dunhill, from billboards. The company’s products are no longer associated with major sporting events, some of which included the Great Race and local cricket competitions.

Like Khan, Rafeeq had garnered support from the TT Cancer Society, which, in the 1970s, had drafted legislation and was responsible for the withdrawal of cigarette advertising at school events.

“The cigarette industry has played the standard trick. They have used their big bucks to buy their way into some important areas of our lives,” president of the Cancer Society of TT, George Lacquis, was quoted as saying in an Inter Press Service (IPS) interview in 2000.

Lacquis said then that the ideal situation would be to have cigarettes banned completely, though he knew “this would never happen”.

“But I think we have the international community on our side now,” he said then, noting that some aid agencies were applying stringent anti-tobacco rules to their expenditure on health sector programmes.

“No ministry of health can ignore this issue. This time I think we will get a ban on cigarette advertising on the books,” he said then.

Lacquis, himself a former smoker, had also noted in the IPS interview, a marked re-emergence of cigarette smoking among young people after a decline of several years during the 1980s.

“When you look at the ads, you see sex and youth. Those are powerful images,” he said in the interview.

Advertising jefe Peter Popplewell said then that he hoped an outright ban on cigarette advertising would not have been the case.

“This does not mesh with the notion of free enterprise,” he said.

“If it’s okay for them to manufacture the product, why are they not free to try to sell it?”

Popplewell argued that the withdrawal of expenditure on cigarette advertising would have a severe impact on the income of media houses and advertising agencies, and would create problems for organisations involved in sport and culture which relied on sponsorship dollars. On that occasion, WITCO’s public relations manager, Keith Carter, was quoted as saying that while the company was not opposed to public education on the ills of cigarette smoking, “we are in a controversial industry — there is the danger that the debate on smoking can descend into demonisation”.

WITCO’s products once dominated more than 95 percent of market share and was one of the most profitable companies listed on the country’s stock exchange, Carter had said.

Combined with peer pressure and parental influence, alcohol advertising has also impacted the level of consumption among persons. However, the extent of influence can be debated.

A study conducted by a team of University of Leicester experts, titled “The Effect of Alcohol Advertising on Young People”, and posted in the Drug Trial News on June 4, 2008, found that by the time young people reached their mid-teens, one in two consumed alcohol at least occasionally, while increasing numbers consumed to the point of drunkenness.

However, the study, which was funded by the Alcohol Education and Research Council, also suggested that while there was mixed evidence as to whether there was a direct link between volume of advertising and volume of alcohol consumption, there were links that could be made between advertising and teenage drinking.

“Young people who start drinking alcohol are affected by a range of influences. These include whether their parents drink and pressures from their own peer group,” the study found.

“Where social influences conflict, young people will tend to follow the influence most important to them. So during the teenage years, if parents disapprove of drinking and friends encourage it, the likelihood is that young people will follow the example of their peers, not their parents.”

More often than not, the study found, alcohol advertising helped young people become familiar with brands of alcohol, but was unclear as to whether it encouraged them to start drinking in the first place.

The study also noted that where alcohol was associated with relaxation, fun, humour, friendship and being “cool”, it was likely to have some influence, while the use of celebrities, colour, popular music or sexual themes appeared to have a more limited effect.

While the study found that retail outlets such as supermarkets presented alcohol promotions in an environment which was accessible to young people, there was no proof that exposure to such alcohol advertising was as great an influence as that of parents and peer groups.

Locally, however, the culture is believed to be playing a major role in creating young alcoholics and substance abusers.

In presenting another side to the debate on the power of advertising, clinical psychologist, Dr Varma Deyalsingh, said a study conducted by the National Alcohol and Drug Prevention Programme (NADAPP), in collaboration with the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission, on pupils in both public and private schools as part of the National Secondary Schools Survey Report of 2006, found that the average first-time user of alcoholic beverages was ten years old, with 75 percent of students in Trinidad and Tobago having initiated alcohol use by age 13.

Deyalsingh was quoted as saying in an April, 2011 interview that the findings were directly related to the cultural environment and would have required a concerted effort and possibly, legislation, to curb what he regarded as a disturbing trend.

He observed that while peer pressure played a significant role in children experimenting with drugs and alcohol, “culturally we are a drinking society, so when we see our parents drinking and smoking, we follow suit”.

Deyalsingh added, “We always try to say, ‘Okay, that’s my decision’ but children don’t see it that way. Mix that with songs like ‘White Oak and Water’ (by Chutney Soca Monarch Rikki Jai), children are going to feel it’s cool.”

The psychologist also observed that while the country had come a long way in terms of the advertising of cigarettes, “probably the Government needs to look now at alcohol consumption”.

Khan, though, has noted the potential damaging effects of alcohol use through subliminal marketing over the years.

“Alcohol abuse is part of the programme of the WHO and constitutes the non-communicable diseases complications and effects. Now when you look at an alcohol ad, it is associated with nice things happening. You see a lot of pretty people and everybody is having a grand time drinking this alcohol. That is what is called subliminal marketing, to tell you how good this product is,” he said.

Khan called for a more aggressive governmental approach in combating such marketing trends, with a view to highlighting likely consequences of alcohol abuse.

Counselling psychologist, Anna Maria Mora, meanwhile said advertisers all over the world have long preyed on the “basic animal nature” inherent in all human beings.

“We have to understand that, as human beings, we have a human nature, but we also have a basic animal nature. We also have a divine nature that we do not attend to at all. But when we are born, we are basically animals that need food, water and sex,” she told Sunday Newsday.

Mora said advertisers have capitalised on this when preparing their campaigns, often to the detriment of many in the society.

“Basically, the two things that motivate us to behave are sex and aggression and we have to be taught to control those two basic parts of us — that is when we begin to develop our human nature, when we are taught to be realistic about who we are. Advertisers have studied that,” she said.

Mora said legislation may soon have to be formulated in this country to regulate the industry as it relates to certain types of provocative advertising.

Advertising honcho Steven Valdez, meanwhile urged those in the industry to be responsible with the messages they send to the population.

“I would hope that companies that are trying to appeal to a particular market would be responsible in the type of messages that they put out there. I would hope that they would ensure that their products are being properly used,” said Valdez, president of Valdez and Torry International.

Valdez used alcohol as an example.

“If you have a product like alcohol, I would hope that you will promote it in such a way where you are only targeting adults, and how you choose to promote that product through the images shown in your advertising and the events with which you are involved in terms of sponsorship, would be the type of events that will attract adults,” he said.

“In addition to that, I hope they would be responsible in terms of the subliminal messages that I see in most of the alcohol advertising these days.”

Valdez, however, observed that many alcohol advertisements did include slogans such as “don’t drink and drive”.

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