Obesity, diabetes and Coca-Cola in Mexico

10/31/2013

I remember as a child that it was a symbol of status and good taste for people to eat meals with a bottle of soda on the table. On special occasions and birthdays, Mama sent us to the store next door to buy three large Coca-Colas—there were eight of us at the table. Cold drinks in Mexico are considered a luxury that transcends social groups; one can find them in the most remote villages, where perhaps there is no water or milk, even at the most sophisticated supermarkets.

In those days there were packaged pastries from Bimbo, Marinela and Wonder, but they had not yet eliminated the traditional pan dulce made by the small panaderías that still exist, although they are few. The same thing happened with Sabritas potato chips and junk food. 

There is no school, party or function where these products are not present. Brands such as Pepsico or Bimbo dominate the market, filling children’s and teenagers’ minds with the idea that this is the food for them, with ads and publicity schemes on television and other media, using United States marketing styles.

Mexico is the world leader in obesity and serious health problems like diabetes—ahead even of the United States, which formerly led the world. Among the 35 largest countries, Mexico has the highest mortality rates caused by consuming sugary drinks. 

Due to its proximity to the United States, Mexico has adopted many of the former’s products and habits, fitting them to its own much poorer lifestyle, often with disastrous results. Since the introduction of Coca-Cola, Mexicans have taken to carbonated drinks with gusto, resulting in that country becoming the world leader in consumption, at 19 liters per month, per family. In 2010, Mexicans consumed 675 eight-ounce bottles of Coke per person—more than any other country—compared to 394 bottles in the United States.

A study in 2010 by the Chamber of Deputies Commission on Health revealed the existence of 230 bottling plants producing 300 million cases of soda yearly. Mexico is second only in soda production to the United States, though its population is barely more than one-third the size.

The same thing occurs with “instant soup.” Studies show that in 1988, Mexicans consumed 73,920 portions of soup a week produced in America, and by 2004 that number had increased to 134,600,000. Mexico buys 67 percent of all soups and broths produced by the United States, which amounts to 15 percent of the world’s consumption.

 Twenty percent of children and 30 percent of women have health problems related to the consumption of these products, more than the United States. The eating habits of Mexicans have changed for the worse. This has been devastating to their general health, and government spending in that area has skyrocketed. At the same time, the producing companies have seen their profits soar.

Given this situation, and constant studies and complaints by N.G.O.’s, Mexican legislators have in the past decided to intervene, reforming laws and prohibiting the sale of sugary drinks and junk food in schools and other public places. However, the onslaught of resistance by the producing corporations and their allies impeded the whole implementation of the legislation and reversed some
results.

Now, in its fiscal reform program, the new Peña Nieto government has imposed additional taxes on soft drinks in order to reduce and discourage consumption of these and other products that cause obesity and related illnesses. 

Once again, the producers have risen up in opposition, defending themselves and attacking the reforms. They have paid expensive foreign lobbying companies millions in an attempt to influence the legislators, and have taken out expensive and deceptive ads in national newspapers and on television saying that their products are the only source of protein for the poor. 

In addition to all this, the producers and their television allies have tried to defeat efforts by NGO’s and other consumer advocate groups to get the truth out. 

The representatives of junk food and sugar-filled drinks have also declined to participate in any of the few debates on public television and radio, and now that reforming legislation is practically approved by Congress they have launched an open campaign of alleged protest by organized labor saying that at least 10,000 jobs will be lost immediately, and many more in the future, affecting the growth of the economy and the country itself. 

The campaign alleges that the people will not change their habits, even though the products will be more expensive, because these foods are part of their culture and are considered necessary.

Time will tell us which side will prevail: the voices of reason and common sense that want to protect the health of the people—principally the poor—or the forces of money and the special interests of Coca Cola, Bimbo and Pepsico, among others.

 

Victor Reyes is a Sonoma County-based translator, language teacher and writer, and a native of Puebla, Mexico, with decades-old ties to the Light. The original Spanish language version of this column is available online at ptreyeslight.com.