Chile is successfully combating its obesity epidemic with restrictions on unhealthy foods and marketing.
According to a study recently published in PLOS Medicine, Chile’s decision to begin combating obesity is paying off. After drafting regulations that included advertising restrictions on unhealthy food products, consumption of sugary drinks dropped nearly 25 percent in the first 18 months. Warning labels were also put on the front of bad-for-you products and the country instituted a ban on junk food in schools. What’s more, during the same period, researchers found there was a “five percent increase in purchases of bottled water, diet soft drinks and fruit juices with no added sugar.”
The study analyzed the the purchasing habits of 2,000 households from 2015 to 2017 and found that “the drop in sugary beverage consumption occurred both among the highly educated and those without a high school degree, although the reductions were somewhat greater among individuals who attended college.”
“An effect this big at the national level in the first year is unheard-of,” said Lindsey Smith Taillie, a nutrition epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and the study’s lead author. “It is a very promising sign for a set of policies that mutually reinforce one another. This is the way we need the world to go to begin to really combat preventable diseases like obesity, hypertension and diabetes.”
Chile’s laws were instituted because the country has historically had one of the highest obesity rates in the world. “Three-quarters of Chilean adults and more than half of children are overweight or obese,” according to health officials who’ve warned that the overall costs of obesity could “consume 4 percent of the nation’s health care spending by 2030, up from 2.4 percent in 2016.”
Chile’s regulations were put into place by former president Michelle Bachelet and were passed by the National Congress. The country’s current president, Sebastián Piñera, has upheld these. Included in the new restrictive marketing, multinational companies had to remove cartoon images from sugary cereals and cannot advertise their products on television throughout the day, from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
“Children are learning at an early age what types of food they should eat and which ones they should avoid,” said Camila Corvalán, a nutritionist at the University of Chile who also worked on the study. “We believe these regulations will change the way this new generation approaches eating, hopefully empowering them to demand healthier foods.”
“We are committed to working with governments and other stakeholders to ensure that consumers have the information they need at their fingertips to support a balanced diet, and we offer a wide array of smaller-portion and lower or no-sugar options,” the International Council of Beverages Association said in a statement.
A spokesperson for Nestlé added that the company “had eliminated more than 3,000 tons of sugar from dairy products and breakfast cereals sold in Chile.”
Sara Bleich, a professor of public health policy at Harvard University who was not involved in the study, said the early results suggested that a network of new food and beverage laws, not just taxes, are needed to address the obesity crisis worldwide. “For countries hoping to move the needle on obesity, all eyes are on Chile,” she said. “We need policies like these that are going to make a meaningful difference. And we need them now, not in five or ten years.”