Recently, we wrote about how a small tax on sugary drinks led to big behavioral changes in Mexico, a country that struggles with obesity-related health issues. Now, the results of a study released this month show how adding warning labels to foods high in sugar, saturated fat, salt and calories has had a huge effect in Chile.
Chile has had a sugar tax like Mexico’s for a few years — they actually raised it in 2014. But the effect of the tax was nothing compared to what they tried next. In 2015, black warning signs began to appear on the front of packages containing unhealthy food and drinks. But that wasn’t all — Chile coupled the warnings with other restrictions. Packaging that targets kids was forbidden (goodbye Tony the Tiger, Cap’n Crunch and that leprechaun), as were ads for high-sugar foods in movie theaters and on TV between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. Unhealthy foods and drinks were banned from schools altogether.
Kids now reportedly chastise their parents if they try to buy the unhealthy foods. A whole generation is changing its behavior — and amazingly quickly.
How quickly? From 2015 to 2017, Chile saw a 25 percent drop in consumption of sugary drinks. As we saw in Mexico, this can translate into fewer instances of obesity, hypertension and diabetes. In other words, a lot of lives are saved, and health care costs are lowered, not only for people who develop these chronic conditions, but for the whole country sharing that financial burden.
Given the good news, the initiative is spreading. Peru, Israel and Uruguay already have similar labels on unhealthy foods. Mexico and Brazil will roll theirs out soon. The U.S. lags behind, which is significant in that junk food and sugary beverages were largely introduced by American companies and half of all adults in the U.S. have high blood pressure (known as the “silent killer” as there are no early symptoms.) In the U.S. the epidemic of unhealthy eating is often simply accepted, and these Latin American countries see the U.S. as an example of what could happen if they don’t act.
To be fair, a handful of U.S. cities have at least adopted the sugar tax, including Oakland, Albany, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boulder, San Francisco and Seattle. In some places, like Berkeley, California, the taxes have reduced soft drink sales by almost 10 percent. But the stop signs and advertising restrictions in Latin America more than double that — and the regulations are nationwide.
Advocates for children’s health assert that cute animals and cartoon characters, along with a barrage of ads targeted at kids, have been manipulating and seducing underage children into unhealthy habits. Strangers offering candy is not good for anyone’s children, so Chile’s accomplishment is huge. As the lead author of the study told the New York Times, “This is the way we need the world to go.”