Saturday, January 24, 2015

Obesity Rates in Qatar

My previous post about weight loss shows was a bit prophetic, there's been a recent report that suggests the Government look into a tax on junk food to help combat soaring obesity.

Many people think that the United States has the highest rate of obese and overweight people but while it has the highest rate out of the OECD countries there's still a few countries in the world that beat it, a number of Polynesian islands, then Qatar and the other GCC countries. If you Google “obesity in Qatar” you'll see all sorts of articles from the last few years, such as this one from the New York Times.

Estimates appear to vary, but upwards of 60% of Qataris are either overweight or obese. This does not surprise me at all and it is common to see overweight or obese children now. I recall that the rate of diabetes was 17% of the Qatari population, in the US I think it's roughly around 8-9%.

Bariatric surgery appears to be a popular option but I was surprised to see in the Dohanews article that over 900 such operations were done at the main hospital this year. While I don't think all of the patients were Qatari I'm sure a fair number were. I'm not sure this even touches on just how many people are opting for surgery, in 2014 I knew two Qataris who went for bariatric surgery and neither of them had it done in Qatar so it would not be in the above statistics.

So is a junk food tax the answer? Well I don't think it will do much to reduce obesity rates, Qataris have reasonable levels of wealth so increasing the price of junk food and sodas by a few riyal isn't really going to do anything to encourage people to eat less junk food. It might encourage the poorer people in Qatar to not spend money on junk but because the poorest people are low-paid laborers I’m willing to bet obesity is not a widespread problem there. To help the poor people such taxes should also be combined with subsidies on nutritious food like fresh fruit and vegetables. Laborers and other low-income workers will gladly buy nutritious food if it's cheap.

The benefits of the tax will be more on the Government revenue side. Obesity creates all sorts of health issues, and because the Government provides free health care for its citizens, obesity is likely costing the Government hundreds of millions of dollars every year in extra health care costs. A tax on junk food could at least help offset those additional costs. If the Government is also subsidizing unhealthy foods, such as sugar, it should consider reducing or eliminating the subsidy.

As for how to reduce the overall obesity rates in its citizens? I have no answer for that. I know the government has been trying with various programs and promotions to encourage people to exercise but in the end the will has to come from the people themselves to change their lifestyles and eating habits.

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