Sweet and sour

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 March, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 March, 2004, 12:00am

There is a new war on in Thailand. It is not against drug traffickers or terrorists, although officials see it as a serious threat. The new enemy lurks on every street corner and outside every school, and is a danger to the well-being of even the poorest child.

Sweets and an overabundance of sickly snacks are wreaking havoc with children's teeth, the size of their waistline and their physical health. Sweet manufacturers, and lax parents, appear to have a lot to answer for in this 'Land of Tooth Decay', as one tourist promotion dubbed Thailand.

This month, the government has decided to go to war against sweets, following the findings of a research project of 21 million youngsters, aged five to 24, in which they discovered the appalling eating habits and vast sums of money spent on sweets and snacks. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was reportedly shocked when he heard that a child spends on average more than 9,000 baht (HK$1,770) a year on these treats, three times the amount spent for academic purposes such as books and computer disks.

A call to arms has been announced to reduce the threat from sugar and excess carbohydrates, and the excessive advertising by manufacturers. The Public Health Ministry is looking into the problem.

Good eating habits are becoming a thing of the past. The basic Thai diet is healthy, but over the past few decades, Thai food has grown greasier as incomes rise and choices grow. Fast food is becoming all the rage. And food manufacturers' adverts have grown relentless. In the survey of children's habits it was found that TV commercials were largely to blame for the emphasis on sweets. None of this is helped by the fact that Thais love snacking, the joke being that people start nibbling at 6am and finish at midnight.

Obesity in children is a growing problem - literally - in a country previously known for its lean people. A recent survey shows more than 13 per cent of youngsters aged between three and 11 are obese. Overall, obesity in Thailand is reported to have grown by more than 130 per cent during the surveyed decade between 1986 and 1996. Diabetes among children is also on the rise, according to the health ministry.

The new war against children's unhealthy eating echoes America's war on waistlines, with multinational companies like McDonald's responding by saying they plan to dish up healthier fast food and ditch those 'super size' portions of french fries and fizzy drinks. So far in Thailand, there has been no response by food manufacturers or sweet vendors. The difficulty is that this danger to children's health is far too tasty, addictive and cheap. And the peddlers of these 'dangerous' substances cannot be put in jail or fined. Clearly, the struggle to protect children's health is going to be an uphill battle, with youngsters unwilling to forgo their daily sugar fix.