World’s Strictest Controls Over Marketing Of Industrial Food Potentially At Risk In Chile’s War On Obesity Epidemic

Tony the Tiger and Cap’n Crunch still cavort and sweetly entice young consumers in the cereal aisle of a conventional supermarket in upstate New York.

Reporter Andrew Jacobs in his front page story in the New York Times (Waging a Sweeping War of Obesity, Chile Slays Tony the Tiger, 2/8/18), notes that Chile’s former president, Sebastian Piñera, returns to political leadership of the South American nation next month and that back in 2011, he vetoed the first proposed food law that has now begun to turn the tide on the global obesity crisis. Chile’s current (for only two more weeks) President Michelle Bachelet trained as a pediatrician and supported the law first proposed in 2007 and enacted while she was president two years ago. According to reporter Jacobs, a spokesman for Mr. Piñera said he would likely take a second look at the law and explore ways to improve it after he takes office.

Other reported attacks on Chile’s food law include a pending lawsuit by Kellogg’s and PepsiCo claiming their intellectual property has been infringed. These goliath corporations contend they should be able to use their trademarks registered in Chile (alas images of Tony the Tiger have been deleted from cereal packages by legal restrictions). And the industrial food industry association in Chile, Chilealimentos, argues that the corollation between weight gain and promotion of unhealthy food is scientifically flawed and consumer education is the best way to change people’s behavior/habits. We recommend viewing the recent film, Fed Up, to see why that is not the simple solution.

Chile has endured skyrocketing rates of obesity: 75% of adults and 50% of six year old children, in a country of 18 million, are overweight or obese. And with medical costs of obesity of $800 million (in 2016), there has been much support for the nation’s restrictions on industrial food products: (i) mandatory packaging redesigns, (ii) labeling rules, (iii) junk food advertising bans from TV, radio and movie theaters, (iv) steep soda taxes, (v) banning the marketing of infant formula to encourage breast feeding, and (vi) already very effective black warning logos in the shape of stop signs on packaged food products high in sugar, or salt, or calories or saturated fat. If a packaged food product sold in Chile is high in sugar and salt and calories and saturated fat, there are now four black warning logos in the shape of stop signs.

Also proving the law’s success, reporter Jacobs notes that 20% of the 1,500 items of packaged food products sold in Chile have been reformulated in response to the law to avoid the dreaded black warning logos. Coca Cola has created 32 new beverages in the last 18 months to avoid the black logos.

Reporter Jacobs quotes a mother of two filling her shopping cart at a supermarket in Santiago (capital of Chile), “I never really paid attention to labels,” but now the black logos “kind of force you to pay attention. And if I don’t notice, my kids do.” Jacobs also quotes Dr. Camila Corvalan of the University of Chile who has been assessing the impact of the new label system: “Originally we didn’t believe the logos would make much of a difference but in focus groups, we’ve discovered that kids really do look at them. They’ll say ‘Mom, this has so many logos, I can’t bring them to school. My teacher won’t allow it’.”

The front page story in the New York Times also quotes Stephen Simpson, director of the Charles Perkins Centre, an Australian medical research institute, clinic and education hub in Sydney, that primarily focuses on diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity. Noting that the multi-billion dollar food and soda industries have exerted pressures to successfully stave off regulation in many other countries, he opines that the significance of Chile’s food law cannot be overstated. How Chile’s (soon to take office) President Sebastian Piñera  seeks to improve the law will be watched closely. Let us hope that the well-financed opposition to the law and political campaign contributions will not control the outcome.

(Frank W. Barrie, 2/20/18)

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