To fight diabetes crisis, Mexican civil society takes aim at junk food, Coca-Cola
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To fight diabetes crisis, Mexican civil society takes aim at junk food, Coca-Cola

With one-third of Mexican children likely to develop diabetes during their lifetime, a group of civic associations known as the Alliance for Healthy Food have called for the removal of junk food and related marketing from children’s lives.

The Alliance for Healthy Food’s mass media campaign, entitled “What did your children eat today?” aims to raise awareness of this health crisis, which is being fueled largely by excessive consumption of junk food and sugary drinks.

The campaign is targeted at parents, to encourage them to make better dietary choices for their children, and at lawmakers, to persuade them to pass more stringent legislation against junk food and sugary drink advertising that targets Mexican children.

“Government officials and legislators have a decisive role to play everywhere in safeguarding the future of children,” said Alejandro Calvillo of the consumer rights organization El Poder del Consumidor, one of more than 20 public interest organizations and social movements that comprise the Alliance for Healthy Food.

“When children see junk food and its pervasive marketing in every corner of their environment, and when the government and educators fail to inform consumers and children of the health risks of certain foods, we are failing our children,” Calvillo added.

Full-blown health crisis

Mexico has the highest rate of adult obesity in the world, with one third of all adults obese, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. One-third of children and 70 percent of adults are overweight or obese.

Estimates for the number of Mexicans killed by diabetes each year range from 70,000 to 100,000 – roughly the same number of people killed in Mexico’s war on drugs in the last eight years.

Such high indices place a heavy burden on the Mexican economy. Obesity cost Mexico an estimated $5.5 billion in 2008, and that figure is expected to rise to $12.5 billion by 2017.

In January 2014, the Mexican government introduced a tax on sugary drinks, making them eight percent more expensive, in a bid to discourage excessive consumption.

The tax led to an immediate drop in sales of sugary drinks like soda, but food and beverage companies have reportedly begun using commercial strategies and legal complaints in a bid to minimize the impact of the tax.

Sandra Mullin, senior vice president of policy and communications at the World Lung Foundation, which is supporting the Alliance for Healthy Food campaign, urged the Mexican government to “stand firm against the lobbying tactics and threatening words of Big Food and Big Soda, aimed at preventing the passage, implementation and enforcement of rigorous laws, regulations and policies to help curb overweight, obesity and diabetes.”

Coca-Cola dominates

Mexico is the world’s number one consumer of Coca-Cola beverages, accounting for about five percent of the corporation’s global sales.

Coca-Cola officials have argued that there is no reason to single out their products as driving Mexico’s health problems and cited a lack of exercise as a major contributor.

Coca-Cola’s sales experienced a decline in Mexico in the first half of 2014 and the company shut down its plant in Guerrero this week after student protesters attacked the site amid an ongoing dispute over the theft of two delivery trucks.

However, the corporation continues to enjoy a strong degree of influence and a highly visible presence across the country.

Former Coca-Cola executive Vicente Fox served as Mexico’s president from 2000-2006, and even the most remote indigenous villages boast incongruous red billboards that welcome visitors with a reminder to enjoy the “real thing.”

Shiny red Coke bottles can also be found in the cooperatives run by the indigenous Zapatistas in their autonomous communities in the southern state of Chiapas, partly because the drink’s high sugar and caffeine content provides farmers with the necessary energy to toil under the hot sun.

If Coca-Cola can even infiltrate anti-capitalist rebel movements, then civil society truly has a fight on its hands when it comes to reducing consumption across Mexico.

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