Prioritising health over profits

30 January 2019 | Policy

Paula Johns is co-founder and director of the ACT Tobacco Control, a Brazilian coalition. She shares her thoughts on the importance of interpretive front-of-pack food labelling (FOPL).

World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) International’s report on FOPL gives an excellent overview on the complexities regarding the evidence base surrounding FOPL, and the difficulties of drawing conclusions in a scenario with many experimental studies and a lack of evidence from real-world settings.

This fact poses an important question in terms of what type and how much evidence we would be required to produce, in order to prove a FOPL is imperative in the current climate, where obesity is increasing at an alarming rate worldwide.  

What works in reality?

From what I have seen in the field (real-world settings) as an advocate and in the published evidence, the Chilean style warning label is currently the best existing model to inform consumers about critical nutrients in packaged foods. 

Therefore, we need to look at the broader political context to understand why other governments are not moving in this direction and adopting a mandatory warning label. If companies don’t want to be part of the solution this is, by far, the most effective way to make them reformulate to healthier products. It would also help to level the playing field for those companies who do want to do better. 

Most importantly, we need to ask, what is the cost of failing to test an innovative model such as the warning label? People are dying of malnutrition on a daily basis – the design and nutritional profile threshold or algorithm do not need to be perfect. What we need is for governments to test what works so that we have some much needed real-world evidence. Australia would never have adopted plain packaging for cigarettes if there had not been political will for testing this particular policy that had never been tried before. In the case of FOPL, I wish the rest of the world would look to Chile like we’ve looked to and supported Australia with plain packaging, or to Canada when we first started to prove pictorial warning labels on cigarette packs work in the real-world. 

Health over profits

If we, as a society, collectively prioritise health over profits, we should ask the following question: is there any harm to the health of the population in adopting a policy that forces companies to inform consumers about what is in their products? Because the evidence is crystal clear – these ultra-processed products are contributing to making children obese and causing non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

Like tobacco, we have an obesity epidemic on a global scale. The evidence shows that the nutritional transition from real foods into ultra-processed foods is a fundamental element in this equation. And, like tobacco, the ultra-processed food industry use tactics of ‘Delay, Divide, Deflect and Deny’ to avoid policies that can impact on their business model. It is part of the rule of the game that allows corporations to profit without having to deal with the externalities of their business, including its environmental and health consequences.

A comprehensive approach for a complex problem 

To solve a problem as complex as the quality of diets at a populational level, you need a comprehensive approach and set of policies. No one policy alone will be enough to reverse the trends in overweight and obesity, and the associated diet-related NCDs. FOPL should be a fundamental part of that comprehensive approach, and governments should take the lead from countries like Chile and implement innovative and effective warning labels. We should learn from the struggle we had with the tobacco industry and applaud innovative policy development that counters textbook industry tactics. When we follow innovative countries like Chile, we can contribute to the real-world evidence base and help other governments who lack political will or struggle with industry interference.

Paula Johns | 30 January 2019

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