Tiny, poor, diabetes-wracked Pacific island nations want to ban junk food, despite risk of WTO retaliation

In the poor, remote island nations of the South Pacific, the Type-II diabetes rate ranges from 19% to 34%, a devastating health statistic that is challenging the countries' economies and wellbeing.

Some of these countries have tried taxing sugar or sweetened beverages, but Vanuatu is set to go further, banning imported food from government and tourist institutions altogether. It's the first step to a comprehensive ban on all junk food importation -- something that has been unsuccessfully tried in the region, as when Samoa passed a ban on high-fat "turkey tails," only to have it reversed by the World Trade Organization.

Public health experts who study the island nations of the Pacific welcomed the ban, saying that bold measures were necessary for an impoverished and isolated region of 10 million people — one where the cost of sending legions of patients abroad for dialysis treatment or kidney transplants is untenable.

“Imagine if 75 million Americans had diabetes — that’s the scale of the epidemic we’re talking about in Vanuatu,” Roger Magnusson, a professor of health law and governance at Sydney Law School in Australia, said in an email.

“Can anyone seriously say that Vanuatu doesn’t have the right to exercise its health sovereignty in every way possible to protect its population from an epidemic of that scale?” he added.

Experts say the region’s health crisis is primarily driven by a decades-long shift from traditional diets based on root crops toward ones that are high in sugar, refined starch and processed foods.

As Obesity Rises, Remote Pacific Islands Plan to Abandon Junk Food [Mike Ives/New York Times]