In Sweeping War on Obesity, Chile Slays Tony the Tiger


María José Echeverria, a spokeswoman for PepsiCo, said the company was fully compliant with the law, and had no interest in overturning it, but was only trying to protect its ability to use a locally registered trademark.

Kellogg declined to comment.

Soaring obesity rates are forcing governments around the world to confront one of the more serious threats to public health in a generation.

Until the late 1980s, malnutrition was widespread among poor Chileans, especially children. Today, three-quarters of adults are overweight or obese, according to the country’s health ministry. Officials have been particularly alarmed by childhood obesity rates that are among the world’s highest, with over half of 6-year-old children overweight or obese.

In 2016, the medical costs of obesity reached $800 million, or 2.4 percent of all health care spending, a figure that analysts say will reach nearly 4 percent in 2030.

Such sobering statistics helped rally a coalition of elected officials, scientists and public health advocates who overcame fierce opposition from food companies and their allies in government.

“It was a hard-fought guerrilla war,” said Senator Guido Girardi, vice president of the Chilean senate and a doctor who first proposed the regulations in 2007. “People have a right to know what these food companies are putting in this trash, and with this legislation, I think Chile has made a huge contribution to humanity.”

‘Poison of Our Time’

Photo

Senator Guido Girardi, shown here in 2015, is vice president of the Chilean senate and a doctor. He first proposed the food regulations in 2007.

Credit
Juan Eduardo Lopez/GDA, via Associated Press

From India to Colombia to the United States, countries rich and poor have been struggling to combat rising obesity — and encountering ferocious resistance from food companies eager to protect their profits.

In Chile, corporate interests delayed passage of the law for almost a decade, and on two occasions there were so many lobbyists crowding Congressional hearings for the bill that the Senate president was forced to suspend the sessions and clear the room.

But the industry rarely faces opponents like Senator Girardi. A trained surgeon with a flair for the theatrical, he is a key figure in the governing coalition of President Michelle Bachelet. During the long fight over the food law, Senator Girardi, 56, publicly assailed big food companies as “21st century pedophiles” and before Ms. Bachelet took office, spent weeks protesting outside the presidential palace with placards that accused her predecessor, Sebastián Piñera, of destroying the nation’s health by vetoing an earlier version of the legislation.

“Sugar kills more people than terrorism and car accidents combined,” he said in an interview as he shook a box of Trix cereal for effect. “It’s the poison of our time.”

There were other factors that made the legislation possible, including a legislature determined to address the rising economic costs of obesity and support from Ms. Bachelet, a socialist who also happens to be trained as a pediatrician.

In the end, industry pressure succeeded in easing some measures in the original legislation, including loosening the advertising restrictions and quashing a proposed ban on junk food sales near schools.

Strange Grocery Aisles

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