Sri Lanka: Exploring Global Industry Pressures on Health
At a recent event entitled ‘Global Health Outlook: Challenges and Implications for Sri Lanka’ hosted by the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS) the speakers in attendance explored the linkages between health and global politics.
The discussion highlighted the extent to which addressing the health issues plaguing Sri Lanka requires diplomacy and international cooperation to curb the forces that extend beyond the confines of national borders.
Global industry links challenging health
Chair Professor of Medicine at the University of Colombo Saroj Jayasinghe covered the issues impacting global health, exploring how corporate influence and trade agreements affected the health outcomes of the population.
Drawing attention to the links between industries he cited a British medical journal article which noted that, “The tobacco industry’s strategies are being used now, according to their internal memos, by the sugary drinks industry.” These strategies are a set of scientifically informed approaches that both the tobacco and sugary drinks industry use to market their products to children.
While praising the policy advances made on alcohol and tobacco control and the recent sugar tax, Prof. Jayasinghe also brought gaps in policy to attention. He stressed that considerations of domestic policy were not enough to address the health challenges Sri Lanka faces as a country integrated into the world economy. Priority needs to be given to the health impact of any international trade agreements be it development or investment of highways, as it all inevitably has an impact on health.
He highlighted the necessity of employing experts who focus on the various health implications of any project or international agreement and called for proper health impact assessment of all international agreements.
Global impact on mental health
Senior Lecturer in Psychiatry at the University of Colombo Medical Faculty, Dr. Mahesh Rajasuriya spoke on the trans-border influence on mental health in Sri Lanka.
He highlighted that mental health is far more than curing mental illness, and encompasses happiness and meaning of life. He brought to notice the narrowing of perception and over-simplification in psychiatry. The issue of defining mental health challenges by medicines, the focus on medical treatment and the idea of a chemical imbalance resulting in mental illness. He stressed the importance of not relying solely on medication and having a broader view on treatment of mental illness, as demonstrated through the bio-psycho-social approach.
Dr. Rajasuriya, who is also the chair of IOGT International member organization ADIC in Sri Lanka, further noted the corporate influence even visible in international organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO). He highlighted how the terminology itself is formed in favor of multinational corporations, citing the example of the term “harmful use of alcohol”, considered to be a disorder. He suggested the term should be adjusted to “harm due to use of alcohol”, as the harm is not caused by a few people who has a disorder but by alcohol use itself.
He further added that focus should be on per capita use of alcohol, which is linked to accidents, cirrhosis, social harm, psychological harm, not just the harmful use of alcohol. The moment per capita alcohol consumption decreases, the negative effects of alcohol also decrease.
Prospect of ‘Digital Health’
Talking about digital health Senior Professor of Anatomy at the University of Colombo Medical Faculty Vajira Dissanayake, highlighted how Sri Lanka has ventured into this new field.
He brought to note the health informatics training programme carried out at the University of Colombo and its positive outcomes. One such outcome being the ‘District Nutrition Management System’, which has been used to help tackle the malnutrition problem facing many children in the country.
Prof. Dissanayake stressed the importance of digital health in creating WHO recommended integrated healthcare systems. These systems must be able to talk to each other and inform decision making, policy making and global health regulations. Such systems are of key importance to treating the growing Non Communicable Disease (NCDs) burden.
In the globalized world, influence from interlinked global industries are high, and they prioritize profit over health. These industries influence international trade agreements and attempt at policy changes for their benefit. It is necessary for the government to have a health priority view in mitigating possible harm for people and specially children in this environment. At the same time, positive aspects of globalization such as the emerging field of digital health must also be used to reap the highest benefit for health outcomes within the country.