RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
In the U.S., it's hard to tell people what they can and cannot eat. Remember when former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg caught a whole lot of flak for trying to limit the size of soft drinks? Other countries take a more active role in these matters. The tiny South-American nation of Uruguay has some of Latin America's worst stats - high rates of obesity, hypertension and heart disease. So the government there has stepped in and enacted a salt ban. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro has the story.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: A typical Uruguayan asado, or barbecue, like the one in this video, is made up of vast racks of prime cuts of beef, pork or chicken roasted on a grill next to a wood burning fire. At parilla restaurants across the capitol Montevideo, they're pretty epic. The fatty cuts sizzle, and then they get slapped onto your plate oozing with juice. But if you want to grab a salt shaker and add a bit of extra salt to your meals these days there...
LUCIA SORIA: People are not allowed to put salt anymore on the table.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lucia Soria is the owner of Jacinto restaurant in Montevideo, and we reached her by phone. She explains the city government made it illegal to have salt shakers out in restaurants. No mayonnaise either or ketchup. In fact, pretty much anything with a lot of sodium in it is banned from being out in public. If you want it, you have to ask for it. Soria says she doesn't like this interventionist approach.
SORIA: I think it's the wrong way to do it. I think we have to try to teach people not to eat salt in quantities that are not safe.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But the director of public health for Montevideo, Pablo Anzalone, tells me the government had to get involved.
PABLO ANZALONE: (Speaking Spanish).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: "The national consumption of sodium in Uruguay," he says, "is about nine grams per person, which is double what the World Health Organization recommends," he says. According to the Ministry of Health, over 30 percent of the population suffers from hypertension. Uruguay also has the largest percentage of obese children in the region. And this is not just about removing salt from the table. The salt law also stipulates that there also needs to be a warning on the menu about salt consumption, and restaurants need to have low-sodium alternatives available to customers.
ANZALONE: (Speaking Spanish).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Anzalone says the Government has a duty to protect its citizens from bad choices. "People make decisions based on conditioning and the advertising that large corporations unleash," he says, "this is now a serious problem of public health." Uruguay's leftist leadership has a history of getting involved in what, in many countries, is viewed as a private choice. Its new president, Tabare Vazquez, is a former doctor who championed Uruguay's tough antismoking laws in his first term of office. Recently, he's announced a war on alcohol consumption, too.
LIBER BISCIOTTANO: Hola.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Liber Bisciottano works in an exclusive parilla restaurant in Montevideo. I reached him by phone, also. So far, there are no figures that show if the law which was enacted a few years ago is actually making a difference. But he says there is circumstantial evidence that shows it's changing people's habits.
BISCIOTTANO: (Speaking Spanish).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: "I've worked in the restaurant business for 11 years," he tells me. "And at the beginning, it was a 20 percent of people who didn't salt their food. And now, it's about 20 who do." He supports the law, except for one thing.
BISCIOTTANO: (Speaking Spanish).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: "It makes us have to work harder because we have to walk more," he says. "Going back and forth to the kitchen to get salt," he says, "I think it's added an extra mile to my day." Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.
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