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LEIPZIG, Germany: The global obesity epidemic shows few signs of abating, and numerous countries from different regions have introduced policies aimed at reducing its impact. One of these countries is Chile, whose adoption of a strict warning system for the labelling of food and beverages high in sugar, fat or salt cut purchases of these products by almost a quarter over an 18-month period, according to a recent study.
In 2016, Chile brought the law of food labelling and advertising into effect. It encompasses a range of policies that subject unhealthy foods and beverages to certain marketing restrictions, particularly in relation to advertising aimed at children. Furthermore, the regulation bans the sale of such food and drink at schools and includes a mandatory front-of-packaging warning label system that clearly states, with the assistance of black stop signs, whether a product contains excessive amounts of sugar, sodium, saturated fats or energy.
According to the study’s findings, the regulation’s introduction led to a 23.7% reduction in purchases of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) in the country, while a 5% increase in sales of bottled water, diet soft drinks and fruit juices without added sugar was recorded. In addition, another study published in Public Health Nutrition found that Chilean children’s exposure to unhealthy food and drink advertisements decreased by 58% on average.
“An effect this big at the national level in the first year is unheard of,” Dr Lindsey Smith Taillie, lead author of the study and a nutrition epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told the New York Times.
“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,” she added.
Though Chile’s approach has thus far proved to be extremely fruitful, it is not the only country by far attempting to reduce its populace’s intake of sugar and other unhealthy ingredients. In England, the April 2018 introduction of the Soft Drinks Industry Levy—commonly known as the sugar tax—was primarily responsible for a 28.8% decrease in the sugar content per 100 ml of carbonated beverages. Similarly, the 2014 implementation of a tax on SSBs in Mexico led to a 6.3% reduction in SSB purchases and a 16.2% increase in bottled water purchases, according to a study in the Journal of Nutrition.
The success of the law’s introduction in Chile has led the New Zealand Dental Association (NZDA) to press for its country’s government to adopt similar policies. “The idea of a levy on sugary drinks is widely talked about, but what this study shows is that other measures can have an impact on sugary drink consumption too,” said NZDA sugary drinks spokesperson Dr Rob Beaglehole.
“The success also of warning labels tells us that both a teaspoon icon showing the number of teaspoons of sugar in a drink, and warning labels which highlight the tooth decay, obesity, and diabetes risks that high-sugar drinks pose can lead to reduced sugary drink consumption and harm,” he added.
“The Australian Dental Association [ADA] endorses the use of a sugar-sweetened beverage tax,” Dr Michael Foley, chair of the ADA’s Oral Health Committee, told Dental Tribune International.
“The ADA supports any public health measures designed to reduce Australia's high sugar consumption. Strong public health measures, including cigarette tax, plain packaging and alcohol tax, have been shown to influence purchases, and evidence around the world suggests that a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages does too,” Foley concluded.
The study, titled “An evaluation of Chile’s law of food labeling and advertising on sugar-sweetened beverage purchases from 2015 to 2017: A before-and-after study”, was published online on 11 February 2020, in PLOS Medicine.