By Andrew Jacobs
New York Times News Service
SANTIAGO, Chile — They killed Tony the Tiger. They did away with Cheetos’ Chester Cheetah. They banned Kinder Surprise, the chocolate eggs with a hidden toy.
The Chilean government, facing skyrocketing rates of obesity, is waging war on unhealthy foods with a phalanx of marketing restrictions, mandatory packaging redesigns and labeling rules aimed at transforming the eating habits of 18 million people.
Nutrition experts say the measures are the world’s most ambitious attempt to remake a country’s food culture and could be a model for how to turn the tide on a global obesity epidemic that researchers say contributes to 4 million premature deaths a year.
Since the food law was enacted two years ago, it has forced multinational behemoths like Kellogg to remove iconic cartoon characters from sugary cereal boxes and banned the sale of candy like Kinder Surprise that use trinkets to lure young consumers. The law prohibits the sale of junk food like ice cream, chocolate and potato chips in Chilean schools and proscribes such products from being advertised during television programs or on websites aimed at young audiences.
Still craving Coca-Cola? In Chile, beverages high in sugar include an 18 percent tax, which is among the steepest soda taxes in the world.
The linchpin of the initiative is a new labeling system that requires packaged food companies to prominently display black warning logos in the shape of a stop sign on items high in sugar, salt, calories or saturated fat.
The food industry calls the rules government overreach. Felipe Lira, the director of Chilealimentos, an industry association, said that the new nutrition labels were confusing and “invasive” and that the marketing restrictions were based on a scientifically flawed correlation between the promotion of unhealthy foods and weight gain.
“We believe that the best way to approach the problem of obesity is through consumer education that changes people’s habits,” he said in an emailed statement.
PepsiCo, the maker of Cheetos, and Kellogg, producer of Frosted Flakes, have gone to court, arguing that the regulations infringe on their intellectual property. The case is pending.
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.
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 more than 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.
“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,” said Sen. Guido Girardi, vice president of the Chilean Senate and a doctor who proposed the regulations in 2007.
In Chile, corporate interests delayed passage of the law for almost a decade. But the industry rarely faces opponents like 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, Girardi, 56, publicly assailed big food companies as “21st century pedophiles” and, before 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.”
Obesity rates in Chile have yet to fall, and experts say it could take years to significantly modify the way people eat. But by focusing on the packaging and advertising of unhealthy foods that appeal to children, the Chilean government is hoping to reprogram the next generation of consumers.
The new regulations, however, have prompted an unexpected payoff already: Food companies have been voluntarily modifying their products to avoid the dreaded black logos.
The job of implementing the rules falls to a group of technical advisers who gather weekly at the Ministry of Health and provide guidance on whether a snack company should remove the dancing cat logo from cookie packages.
Some nutrition advocates wonder how long the law will survive in its current form. Piñera, the former president who was recently elected to the office again and will succeed Bachelet in March, is a conservative businessman who vetoed the food bill in 2011.
Instead, his administration backed a nutrition initiative, financed by multinational food companies, that emphasized healthy recipes, exercise and moderation when it comes to junk food.