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Kamloops News

THOMPSON: Canadians should take note of the Chilean war on obesity

February 26, 2018 - 12:00 PM



Tony the Tiger - you know, that blue-nosed cat that hawked Frosted Flakes for Kellogg’s for 66 years - was killed in Santiago, Chile. In what can only be described as an incredible co-inky-dinky, Chester - you know, the cat that hawked Frito-Lay’s Cheetos for 30 years - well, he was killed the same day…also in Santiago. It was - and I’m at risk of considerable understatement - the oddest double-homicide ever.

You see, Chile’s government decided these two cats…and all the other cute cartoon-like animals employed to market food and drink - could no longer roam the aisles of the nation’s grocery stores. The Chilean government actually passed the law two years ago to combat the severe problem of obesity in Chile. But the law gave companies a couple of years to complete a massive marketing transition. Companies faced formidable tasks like re-designing packaging and creating new advertising and branding strategies.

But, even more daunting, food and beverage makers had to decide whether it made sense to re-formulate their products…and avoid high-profile labels that let customers know they were making unhealthy choices. That might sound easy at first blush, but think about trying to make your tasty snack tasty…with half the levels of sugar, salt and fat…you know, the things that make food, well, tasty.

The food and beverage industry is huge - with annual sales of nearly US $56 Billion annually worldwide - and nutrition experts claim the largely unhealthy products are growing at a rather healthy rate of about 13 percent a year.

So, there’s little doubt that Chile is ground zero in the worldwide war on unhealthy snacks and drinks. Canadians should watch this struggle with more than a passing interest. Why? Because while 27.8 percent of all Chileans are obese…a slightly higher percentage of Canadians - 28 percent - are obese.

Of course, obesity in this case is based on Body Mass Index (BMI), a more or less universally accepted measure attained by dividing one’s body mass by the square of one’s height. It can be somewhat misleading, of course, since a 5’ 8” 245-pound body builder would appear hopelessly fat, according to BMI. Still, it’s a good general indication that you are what you eat.

The Chilean law doesn’t simply remove cute cartoon characters from packaging. It prohibits schools from serving food items like potato chips, ice cream and chocolate. It prevents advertising unhealthy food and beverages on television and websites aimed at children.

Further, the law bans all commercials for unhealthy snacks and drinks on television, radio and websites by 2019. Soft drinks high in sugar cost 18 percent more than healthy beverages as a result of the new tax mandated by the government.

Offending foods and beverages in Chile traded the cutesy cartoon-like animals for government-imposed black labels warning consumers that the products are high in sugar, salt, saturated fat and calories. Chile’s not messing around.

It’s too soon to know exactly how or when the changes will impact obesity in Chile. The world is watching. By the way, the United States leads the way in obesity…the number of obese Americans is more than three times the entire population of Canada. But Canada ranks seventh in the world in obesity…so, what about Canada?

Should Canada take up arms against obesity like Chile? We have universal healthcare here, so the argument can easily be made that it’s in every taxpayer’s interests that we banish cutesy cartoon characters for ominous black warning labels. 

Other evidence might support consideration of changes in laws here in Canada. For example, Stanford University researchers last year tracked the activity levels of hundreds of thousands of people worldwide and discovered - not surprisingly - that nations where people walked similar amounts each day had lower obesity. Places where big gaps existed between people who walked a lot and those who rarely walked coincided with greater obesity. Canada ranks third worst out of 46 countries in this activity gap.

It seems sensible to me that you give consumers as much information as possible to make informed decisions. So, personally, I don’t mind stripping packages of cutesy cartoon animals and putting the fact that what you’re buying is high in stuff that is proven unhealthy.

Food items worldwide often carry misleading and somewhat meaningless statements like “all natural” or “vitamin and mineral rich” and they’re often among the highest in sugar, salt and fat. In Chile, if the product is high in sugar, fat and salt…you see three black warning labels…really hard to miss.

I worry less about government intrusion here, especially with a checks-and-balances approach to law making. Government protects us from foreign military attack…why not an attack from within? Besides, I don’t expect advertisers to automatically do the right thing here…it’s my former playground…they do what serves their purposes. Of course, someone or more accurately some government panel has to decide whether something offends…is this or that cartoon character or logo allowed?

Officials at the World Health Organization (WHO) say that more than four million people die each year worldwide as a result of obesity. Most of those deaths occur in developed countries. WHO estimates more than 30,000 Canadians die each year from complications of obesity.

Our kids and grandkids often walk down the grocery aisles with us. They see Tony the Tiger and Chester the Cheetah and the cute Nestle Quick Bunny…and they ask us to buy what the see. And years later, as adult consumers, they’ve become conditioned and buy the products for their kids.

You know, a funny thing is happening in Chile. Companies are so eager to avoid the black warning labels that more than 20 percent of the foods and beverages sold in Chile - more than 1,500 - have been re-formulated…with lower, healthier amounts of sugar, salt and fat. At McDonald’s, Happy Meals no longer automatically include French fries…but instead offer fruit purées, cherry tomatoes and yogurts.

What Chile is doing sounds worthy of debate here. What do you think? Meanwhile, I don’t know what to do about Tony the Tiger…I knew him virtually my entire life. I missed his funeral…maybe flowers?

– Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.

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