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Chilean model for cracking down on unhealthy food could work in Pacific, expert says

Labelling unhealthy food exactly as that has cut nearly a quarter of soft drink sales in Chile thanks to regulations the Pacific should start considering, lead public health expert Dr. Colin Tukuitonga, has said. 

Chilean researchers observed that in the four years since major regulations controlling unhealthy food advertising and front of package labelling were implemented, sugary drink consumption has fallen nearly 23.7 per cent.

The study, published this week, took a deep dive into the impact the 2016 policies have had in Chile. The laws restricted adverts direct at children, banned their publication during hours children would see them, and banned sales of certain junk food in schools.

Lead author Lindsey Smith Taillie said the significant drop in sales so soon after the laws were passed is “unheard of.

“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.”

The New York Times reports that Peru, Uruguay and Israel have also enforced front of package labelling like in Chile, and Brazil and Mexico will follow suit this year. 

The Pacific, where N.C.D.s are the cause of 80 per cent of all deaths, is at a point where it needs to follow suit, Pacific Public Health Specialist Dr. Colin Tukuitonga.

Measures like increasing taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages and tobacco have made some small dents in unhealthy habits, but the region is not seeing change in this area.

And neither is the world at large, Dr. Tukuitonga said. 

At the third Global N.C.D. Alliance Forum in the United Arab Emirates earlier this month, the former Director General of the Pacific Community (S.P.C.) joined a chorus of likeminded experts and sector leaders lamenting the lack of progress on preventable diseases causing a raft of social ills.

“The Pacific is exactly in that space. There is a lot of policy work and so on and it does not appear to be making progress at all. I would think that perhaps it is time now to say look, enough is enough,” Dr. Tukuitonga said.

“Relying on self-regulation by the soft drinks industry and the food industry has not worked, will not work and it’s time to take a stronger stand on these things.”

The Chilean model shows laws can be effective interventions where previously nations have relied on industries to do their part in reducing the significant health burdens their products contribute to.

But in the Pacific, small island states have found enforcing laws a challenge, though writing and passing them can be easier.

Dr. Tukuitonga said before the Pacific moves to legislate on anything, countries should think carefully about enforcement. 

“I’m not saying don’t do it, I’m just simply saying it’s a really good option but it comes with some demand that might be challenging for many small nations.”

The S.P.C. is currently working on legislation for the region on non-communicable diseases (N.C.D.s.) to help smaller jurisdictions make progress in the area. Dr. Paula Vivili, the Director the Public Health Division said the work is focused on achievable legislation first, followed by tougher legal action. 

Meanwhile, voluntary framework the Pacific N.C.D. Roadmap has helped at least 12 out of 22 nations implement tougher tax laws on sugar sweetened beverages and tobacco, including Samoa.

In Chile, the front of package labelling is black ‘stop sign’ labels on sweet food and drinks that are high in salt, sugar, fat or calories. Research found children stop their parents reaching for packets with the labelling.

Dr. Tukuitonga said while ideally having private sector support to reduce N.C.D. rates in the Pacific would be great, years of attempts have proven some industries are unwilling to do what may come at a significant cost to them.

While Health Ministers and the like have long demanded of industry to apply good labelling practices and reduce refined sugars in their products, eventually countries will have to make stronger, more punitive statements.

“I think Governments have been unwilling to intervene to that extent and they have relied on self-regulation. 

“They have said to the soft drink industry, the food industry: label your products better, put reliable information on the labels of your products, but no one has gone to the point of insisting that these things are done […] that is clearly the next step.”    

For some Island nations, regulating imports has shown signs of success. In Tokelau, imported sugar sweetened soft drinks have been banned since 2009.

But in countries that produce their own soft drinks like Fiji and Samoa, the challenge is broader than regulating imports, and one cannot be done without the other, Dr. Tukuitonga continued.

In March, Niuean born Dr. Tukuitonga will join the Auckland University's Health and Medical Sciences faculty as the inaugural Associate Dean Pacific. 

He was the Director General of S.P.C. for seven years, and was previously the Director of Public Health in New Zealand, before a stint as the coordinator of surveillance and prevention of N.C.D.s in the World Health Organisation.

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