Chilean Flamingos

Soda Consumption Plunging in Chile! Really?

This is a spin machine that any politician would be proud to own. Chile enacted a broad set of food system regulations in 2016 that many folks in public health simply love. The intent? Put an end to this obesity thing. This week, PLOS Medicine published a study of their effects and the fan club erupted in cheers. Sugary Drink Consumption Plunges in Chile After New Food Law, said the New York Times headline.

But is that true? Only if you consider a net reduction of 7 calories per day a plunge.

Love Is Blind

Harvard’s Sara Bleich, a researcher we deeply respect, told the Times:

For countries hoping to move the needle on obesity, all eyes are on Chile. We need policies like these that are going to make a meaningful difference. And we need them now, not in five or ten years.

Bleich was not directly involved in this study. So the study’s lead author, Lindsey Smith Tallie, was much more breathless in her praise for these fabulous results:

An effect this big at the national level in the first year 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.

A Few Teensie Caveats

Not that we want to be a party pooper, but all this joy might be premature. Objectivity is important for actually solving problems. Especially a wicked problem like the tripling of obesity prevalence.

Taking a skeptical view of all this spin, Tamar Haspel writes:

In sum: Chile made SWEEPING changes to food laws – packaging, taxes, ad restrictions. Yet, a few years in, people are drinking 7 calories less in soda per day. This is not a trumpet-from-the-rooftops success. It is a cautionary tale.

By cautionary tale, she means that this might not be a grand slam home run. Barry Popkin is a big fan of these changes. But he offered words to the Times that we take as a reason for caution:

Right now people are just focused on sugary beverages, which is a tiny part of the problem.

Having received long lectures from folks who insist that sugary beverages are the main problem, we were quite happy to read those words from Popkin.

The bottom line is this: Our food environment is no doubt fueling the rise in obesity. We need to fix it. However, it’s broken in ways that none of us fully understand. And even less do we understand which fixes will work. Maybe some of the things they’re doing in Chile will help. But three years in, we have no evidence of any impact on health outcomes. None. Zip.

All we have is data on behavior changes that might or might not make a significant difference in health.

So declaring victory is premature. To solve this problem, we must be objective and curious about what will really work. Otherwise, we will waste another four decades on utterly ineffective policies.

Click here for the study and here for exuberant spin about it in the New York Times.

Chilean Flamingos, photograph © Steve Higgins / flickr

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February 15, 2020

3 Responses to “Soda Consumption Plunging in Chile! Really?”

  1. February 15, 2020 at 9:44 am, Allen Browne said:

    I like Popkin’s statement. Obesity is a big problem.

    And we need to keep our “eye on the ball” – the patients’ health. Just now we are way better at getting the patients healthier than we are at preventing the disease of obesity.

  2. February 15, 2020 at 10:59 am, Ted said:

    I agree with you completely, Allen.

  3. February 23, 2020 at 11:46 am, Jack Winkler, Emeritus Professor of Nutrition Policy, London Metropolitan University said:

    Premature enthusiasm also applies to the soft drinks tax in Mexico, the other poster child of sugar reduction.

    Again, Popkin is an honest man, acknowledging the small difference that the tax made to consumption in absolute amounts.

    “For taxed beverages, the volume of purchases declined by −49ml and -30ml in the first year and second year post tax (2014 and 2015, respectively), while purchases leveled off in the third year of the tax (2016)’.

    The caloric and sugar content of beverages purchased at different
    store-types changed after the sugary drinks taxation in Mexico

    International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity
    December 2019

    The declines were not even a good swallow.

    A better example of a “soda tax” is the UK’s Soft Drinks Industry Levy.

    The difference is that the Mexican tax was charged at retail level, intended to reduce consumption of drinks, while the UK “levy” was charged on manufacturers, designed to stimulate product reformulation. There are lessons here for other countries who seek to reduce their excess sugar consumption. And for academics too.