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Mexico’s War on Junk Food

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A new war on junk food has been roiling Mexico in the last couple of weeks.

As more states propose or approve bans on junk food sales to minors, Mexico is seeing the tide turn against high-calorie snacks that experts say have given the country one of the highest rates of childhood obesity and an unusually young coronavirus death toll.

The Gulf coast state of Tabasco passed restrictions on the sale of sugary bottled drinks and high-carbohydrate snacks this week, less than two weeks after the southern state of Oaxaca became the first to do so. Legislators in several more states have introduced similar bills, all of which forbid merchants from selling “junk” food to minors unless their parent or guardian is present and approves.

In the northern state of Chihuahua, Rep. Rene Frias introduced a bill “to guarantee our children and youths a healthier diet and to fight obesity and excess weight.” The bill has not yet been voted on.

In Mexico City, the country’s largest retail market, Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum said earlier this month “we are working with legislators to see if it is feasible to get similar legislation in Mexico City.”

Some of the measures also would ban vending machines from dispensing such foods and prohibit their sale in or near schools.

The issue has come to a head with the coronavirus pandemic with Mexico having the third highest confirmed COVID-19 death toll in the world, trailing only the United States and Brazil. The government revealed that among the 57,774 Mexicans who have died, high blood pressure and obesity were the chief underlying conditions that may have complicated the disease, with diabetes a close third.

The government’s point man on the epidemic, Hugo López-Gatell, has been a big supporter of the junk food measures — as well as recently enacted mandatory warning labels on high-calorie food — in part because about half of Mexico’s deaths from the virus were people under 65, something he has blamed on obesity and bad diets. He has singled out soft drinks, which he called “bottled poison.”

But defining “junk food” has become a major challenge in writing the new laws — Oaxaca is still working on drawing up its list — in part because there are a lot of traditional Mexican snack foods that are loaded with sugar, salt and calories.

I heard about this right when it came out because my wife’s Facebook feed was full of her Oaxacan friends pretty furious about this. It’s hard to see how it works. There’s no question–Mexico has a very serious obesity problem and that’s especially true among children. My wife notes that there is a vast difference between now and when she started going there 20 years ago. There are a number of reasons for it–but basically the combination of the appeal of western (or really, northern in this case) consumer culture combined with the cheapness of these snacks makes appealing to kids an easy target.

But how does one make this work? First, it’s not as if parents aren’t going to buy this stuff for their kids, not to mention eat it themselves. Second, we know that prohibition on products is just not an effective strategy to change human behavior. Third, as the article points out, it’s not as if traditional Mexican food somehow lacks sugary or salty or high calorie foods. I get the problem, but it’s hard to see how this works as any kind of solution.

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