One can understand the frustration. Decades after the genetics of Pacific peoples collided with high-calorie, low-nutrition (i.e., “junk”) food, leading to astronomical rates of obesity and all its lethal effects (especially diabetes and heart disease), little to no progress has been made in reversing this trend. When I was writing Six Nine, Two Ten, I recalled being on Nauru in the 1970s during the height of their obesity crisis and drop in life expectancy, but I was surprised to see how little had changed in the intervening years. Nauru still has the highest average BMI in the world.
In an article Sunday in the New York Times it was reported that some Pacific nations are trying to restrict the importation or serving of imported foods in an effort to encourage healthier eating:
Cookies and sugary drinks served at government meetings are about to go away. So are imported noodles and canned fish served in tourist bungalows.
Taking their place? Local coconuts, lobsters and lime juice.
While many governments struggle to ban soda to curb obesity, the tiny Torba Tourism Council in the remote Pacific island nation of Vanuatu is planning to outlaw all imported food at government functions and tourist establishments across the province’s 13 inhabited islands.
Provincial leaders hope to turn them instead into havens of local organic food. The ban, scheduled to take effect in March, comes as many Pacific island nations struggle with an obesity crisis brought on in part by the overconsumption of imported junk food.
The other example given was Samoa’s ban on imported turkey tails. Cheap, tasty, and extremely fatty, these are a favorite food item across the Pacific. Samoa ran into problems with this ban when trying to enter the World Trade Organization, and they ultimately agreed to drop the ban and simply have a high import duty on the product:
Samoa would within 12 months of its accession eliminate the prohibition on the importation and domestic distribution of turkey tails and turkey tail products in Samoa. As transitional measures, a domestic ban on the sale of turkey tails and turkey tail products would be in place and an import duty of 300% would apply to the imports. This is to allow time to develop and implement a nation-wide programme promoting healthier diet and life style choices. After two years, the domestic sale ban would be lifted and the import duty would be reduced to 100% or replaced by another tax regulation or by recommendations from the programme.
Food bans have a poor record of success, alcohol and soda prohibitions in the U.S. being the first examples that come to mind. Nonetheless, isolated islands would have a better chance of keeping certain items away than a large continent, and it’s not like Pringles and Twinkies can be made locally. Still, it would take a totalitarian state to cut off everything from rice to cooking oil, and there isn’t enough local agriculture to support the populations on these islands today.
Ultimately, anyone genetically predisposed to gain weight—and we know such gene variants are more common in the Pacific than most other places on Earth—needs to find a way to get all their nutrients every day on a low-calorie budget. I’m this way, and for me it means eating a lot of plant food and avoiding nutrient-free, carbohydrate-laden foods, like soda and baked goods. Until individuals and families make comprehensive changes to their diets in accord with their personal biochemistries, and they spend their money on more nutritious products, food bans will have no effect.
In fact, the near-total destruction of an economy under dictatorial rule, as reported from Venezuela this week, is worth only 19 pounds of weight-loss a year. The crisis of Pacific obesity won’t be solved by decree; people need to make better choices.