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The strategy, then, is simple: companies assure themselves a client for life, without the person even knowing they’re being sold something.

The strategy, then, is simple: companies assure themselves a client for life, without the person even knowing they’re being sold something.

We are on our way to a world where one of the greatest problems in public health is the quantity of junk food that we eat. Should there be regulations on the advertising of such products?

In our free market economy, speaking of regulation always generates resistance. Some might claim: let everyone kill themselves how they want! If I want to drink a soda, I’m the only one who’s affected! Yes, everyone does have liberties, but there are some individual decisions that affect everyone. For example: in Colombia, diabetes spending that occurs as a result of sugary drinks (yes, only sugary drinks) was nearly 740 billion pesos in 2013 (almost 390 million dollars with the current exchange rate), and could pass a trillion pesos by 2020. In Mexico, between 60% and 78% of the health sector’s budget in 2014 was spent on conditions related to obesity. And of course, this also has consequences for the economy. In this same country, loss of productivity due to the premature death from complications related to obesity was between $73 and $101 billion Mexican pesos (around $4 billion dollars) per year.

Okay, but let’s leave aside the fact that this costs us all as a society, and return to scenario in which your decisions only affect you (although this is fiscally not true). There’s no doubt that adults have criteria for deciding what they consume (as long as we’re given truthful advertising). But think of young boys and girls. Since we were children, we’ve created brand loyalty: we’ve been true to certain companies and it’s hard to let them go. That’s why children are some of the biggest clients.

There are several studies that show that when a child is given the exact same product, one packaged with a brand they like and one with any other packaging, they “prefer” the more well-known brand. This is serious, because, until they are 8, children don’t understand that companies, through marketing, are trying to sell them products. Furthermore, it’s not until age 11 that the cognitive ability to recognize the intent to persuade develops. The strategy, then, is simple: companies assure themselves a client for life, without the person even knowing they’re being sold something.

Colegios están llenos de publicidad para la comida chatarra. Foto: Valentina Rozo.

This carries future consequences. Childhood obesity is related to a greater probability of premature death, of being obese as an adult, and the development of non-transmittable diseases like diabetes, as well as various kinds of cancer, including of the breast and colon.

There are many industries that promote junk food, but sugary drinks is one of the categories that most contribtes to the problem of obesity (in some countries, such as the United States, it is the greatest contributor). Why? Because, when one drinks a beverage full of sugar, it goes to the stomach, but it doesn’t cause the feeling of being full because it’s a liquid. So, you consume a ton of calories, but don’t eat less because you don’t feel full.

Now, think about a store in a school. There, a child is without an adult to decide what to buy with their money. It’s also a space where children spend a large part of their day, and therefore deserves special protection. Children are vulnerable to the advertising they see in school, on TV, or in the street, and they can buy all the sugary drinks they want, without restriction. This can build the habit of consuming certain brands, which can continue into adulthood without them understanding the economic interest behind it or the costs this will have on their health. Is that fair?

To balance the scales, and so that companies cannot infringe upon the decisions of a minor while the minor doesn’t have awareness of the intent to persuade (that is, until they are older than 11), many countries are regulating the advertising of sugary drinks. One study analyzed the regulations in 14 countries across Latin America, and found that seven countries have public regulation on the topic: Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Peru and Urugay have introduced regulation though leglislative power, while Costa Rica and Mexico have through executive power. The policies restrict drinks that have a certain quantity of sugar, which varies by country, and concentrates primarily in protecting students in primary school.

Adapted from: Regulatory initiatives to reduce sugar- sweetened beverages (SSBs) in Latin America

Included in this list of countries is Colombia, with a commitment to self-regulation signed in 2016 by six leading companies in the sugar-sweetened beverage industry. Brazil has created a similar pledge. While the two deal with sales in high schools, restrictions vary by country: in Colombia, companies promise to sell only water, juices with less than 12% of fruit and cereal-based drinks in primary schools. Brazil, on the other hand, has commited to selling only water, coconut water, dairy drinks, and 100% fruit juices.

It’s curious to note the moment in which these companies decided to demonstrate interest in the health of children. In Colombia, the debate began in 2016 in the midst of a debate on whether or not there should be a tax on sugary drinks. In Brazil, for its part, the companies announced their agreement while a legal project was in process that would have prohibited the sale of such products in schools. Is that coincidence?

While self-regulation might work with participation mechanisms, monitoring, and the release of account information, it currently doesn’t—precisely because it doesn’t create such mechanisms. In the case of Colombia, we visited 21 schools in the capital and we found that companies continue selling “prohibited” products. And it’s not just that: if their products are artificial juices, their failure to comply is even greater in schools with students from lower economic backgrounds. Discrimination is not just in compliance, but also in access to information: only four schools are aware of the self-regulation pact, and of those, three are institutions that are attended by children of wealthy families. That is to say that schools with lower economic capacity is where the pledge is least known. If that’s the case, how can the communities make their demands?

Because of all of this, governments should start creating laws to protect children in schools, at least until they have the cognitive ability to understand that there is an economic interest behind the products. After that, children can begin to establish their own individual criteria on what they’ll consume. The industry should wait to advertise.

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