Policy Dialogue on Strengthening Policies for Controlling NCD Risk Factors and Malnutrition

27 June 2023

Sri Lanka faces significant challenges in combating non-communicable diseases (NCDs) and malnutrition, both of which have severe implications for public health and national development. In light of these concerns, the Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka (IPS) recently hosted a Policy Dialogue on ” Strengthening Policies for Controlling NCD Risk Factors and Malnutrition.” The dialogue brought together experts who shared valuable insights on improving Sri Lanka’s food environment and highlighted the importance of effective policies in addressing these pressing issues.

Delivering the welcome remarks, Dr Nisha Arunatilake, Director of Research at IPS, highlighted the importance of improving Sri Lanka’s food environment through fiscal and regulatory policies. She noted that despite numerous efforts to address NCDs in Sri Lanka (such as the National Multisectoral Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of NCDs 2022-2026), NCD prevalence continues to increase emphasising the need for more effective interventions.

During her presentation, Dr Renuka Jayatissa, Head of the Nutrition Department at the Medical Research Institute (MRI), shed light on the crucial role of a healthy food environment in reducing NCD risk factors and enhancing nutrition. She stated that one in three Sri Lankans is at risk of malnutrition and NCD prevalence is increasing in the country. To enhance Sri Lanka’s food environment, Dr Jayatissa proposed two key areas of focus: enhancing the nutritional quality of the food supply through community food production, biofortification, and reformulation, and implementing financial instruments like health-oriented cash transfer programmes, targeted taxes, and subsidies for healthy foods.

Dr Shanthi Gunawardana, a Consultant Community Physician from the Ministry of Health, focused on the ongoing policies targeting NCD risk factors and nutrition improvement in her presentation. She discussed the need to revise the National Policy and Strategic Framework for the Prevention and Control of Chronic NCD to address evolving patterns of diseases, socioeconomic determinants, emerging risk factors, health system reorientation, and the impact of the current economic crisis.

IPS  researchers also shared the findings of recent studies on Strengthening Fiscal Policies and Regulations to Promote Healthy Diets in Sri Lanka. Priyanka Jayawardena, Research Economist, IPS, discussed the study findings on the effectiveness of the sugar-sweetened beverage tax (SSB tax) and the Traffic Light Labelling (TLL) system. While the SSB tax has been effective, its impact has diminished over time, emphasising the importance of periodic review and adjustment of tax rates to ensure continued effectiveness. Priyanka also highlighted the significance of consumer awareness regarding TLL in making healthier choices, noting that awareness levels varied among different population groups.

IPS Research Economist Sunimalee Madurawala and Research Officer Usha Perera presented findings from an IPS study on policies for improving the food environment. Sunimalee Madurawala highlighted the surging prevalence of NCDs in Sri Lanka, and the triple burden of malnutrition faced by the country. She underscored the significant role of the food environment in addressing these challenges. She provided recommendations for policy development, including prioritising NCDs and nutrition, ensuring comprehensive policy coverage, fostering stakeholder participation, and addressing technical and legal considerations. Usha Perera discussed study findings on the impact of the food environment on NCD risk factors in underserved settlements in Colombo, highlighting issues related to COVID-19, inflation, and compromised food choices. She noted the impact of external factors, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and inflation, on the food environment. It revealed a decline in cooked food sales and compromised meals due to rising prices and reduced purchasing power. Additionally, affordability issues, unregulated prices, and unhealthy food choices had adverse effects on household food consumption.

The policy dialogue included two panel discussions. The first panel discussion led by Dr Nisha Arunatilake focused on fiscal and regulatory policies for improving the food environment. The panellists included Dr. Vindya Kumarapeli, Director, Non-communicable Diseases, Ministry of Health, Professor Tharanga Thoradeniya, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo and Prof  Amala De Silva, Department of Economics, University of Colombo. The second panel discussion led by Dr Renuka Jayatissa explored effective strategies for improving the food environment and household diets and the impacts of COVID-19. Among the panellists were Dr Shanthi Gunawardana, Consultant Community Physician, Directorate of NCD, Ministry of Health, Dr Lathika Athauda Senior Lecturer Department of Public Health, Faculty of Medicine, University of Kelaniya and Prof Pujitha Wickramasinghe, Senior Professor, Department of Paediatrics, Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo. The panel discussions were followed by engaging discussions with the audience.