A more precise fight against sugar in schools

Against the background of a nationwide campaign to fight diabetes, the Health Promotion Board's (HPB) moves to encourage schools to sell fewer sugary drinks are to be applauded (Sweet drinks off the menu at primary schools; Nov 17).

Critics, however, are also justified to argue that these moves may be unnecessarily intrusive. Even if it is true that sugary beverages are unhealthy, and that students who are addicted to them from a younger age are more likely to develop more health complications in the future, students should still be allowed to make their own choices.

In fact, students who arrive at their own conclusions to stay away from these beverages could possibly make more informed health or lifestyle decisions at a later age.

Furthermore, changes within the school could push students to get their drinks and other sugary snacks from other sources.

HPB should instead specify, measure, and compare the desired outcomes of its Healthy Meals in Schools Programme.

At the moment, primary schools appear to have adopted three broad strategies: First, not having a drinks stall or vending machines in the canteen; second, encouraging vendors to sell drinks with less sugar or to remove carbonated drinks; and third, educating students on the effects of sugar consumption as well as the importance of leading a healthy lifestyle.

HPB and the schools should assess if their students actually benefit from these arrangements.

A quasi-experiment, in other words, can be set up by HPB. A simple design would involve three schools whose students are, at the beginning of the year, surveyed on their sugar consumption patterns, both in school and at home.

Each of these three schools would have in place one of the aforementioned strategies under the Healthy Meals in Schools Programme.

If the hypothesis about not giving students access to sugary drinks at all holds, when students are again surveyed at the end of the year about their sugar consumption patterns, students from the school that adopted the first strategy should show the biggest reduction in consumption vis-à-vis those from the other two schools. The other two strategies can be evaluated too.

Only with such results and data about outcomes can the HPB definitively conclude the effectiveness of its moves.

Accumulating such knowledge, in the long run, will only benefit HPB.

Kwan Jin Yao

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 21, 2017, with the headline 'A more precise fight against sugar in schools'. Print Edition | Subscribe