Spurred by growing evidence that being overweight increases the risk of serious illness with an infection by the novel coronavirus, a number of Mexican states are moving to ban the sale of junk food to children.
On Monday, legislators in Tabasco voted to prohibit the sale of sugar-sweetened beverages and highly processed foods to anyone under 18, just 12 days after Oaxaca took similar action.
The pandemic has created an explosion of awareness about why Mexicans are so vulnerable to certain diseases, prompting ambitious new bills in at least 10 states and Mexico City. Tabasco legislator Manuel Gordillo Bonfil said in a statement that the COVID-19 pandemic is a historic opportunity to establish public policies that protect the health of children.
Details of Tabasco’s ban are still being worked out, but the vote was 22 to 8.
With its ley antichatarra, or anti-junk food law, the southern state of Oaxaca, in a vote of 31 to 1, prohibited the sale of items such as chips, candy, soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages to children under 18, putting these foods in the same category as cigarettes and alcohol. The law establishes fines, store closures and jail time for repeat offenders. The ban also applies to vending machines in schools.
“These laws are a huge win for public health because of the level of media attention they are getting globally,” says Rafael Pérez-Escamilla, a professor at Yale School of Public Health. “The pandemic is underlining the need to put public health front and center.”
The World Health Organization, UNICEF and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, have issued strong statements supporting the new laws, but pushback has been swift. Speaking at an event in Berriozabal, Chiapas, deputy health minister Hugo López-Gatell, the country’s coronavirus czar, described sugary drinks as “bottled poison.” ANPRAC, the national association of soft drink producers, issued a statement that he was unfairly demonizing the category.
The food industry claims that mom-and-pop bodegas and shops that rely heavily on soda sales will be hurt financially by the new laws.
“It may be true,” Pérez-Escamilla says. “The government will have to come up with some solutions for that. But this is a very strong message to all of society that this should be taken seriously. It’s so important that we empower parents and teachers, because schools are a very big target.”
Seventy-three percent of Mexicans are considered overweight, 34% morbidly obese, according to an Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development study published in January. Oaxaca, one of the country’s poorest states, has one of the highest levels of obesity, according to a 2019 Mexican National Health and Nutrition Survey. Indigenous communities are exposed through predatory marketing practices and through the cheaper pricing of ultra-processed foods.
“The environment has made it really easy for children to have access to low-nutrient, high-calorie, ultra-processed foods,” Pérez-Escamilla says.
A nationwide labeling law, modeled after one in Chile, goes into effect in October in Mexico, requiring black stop signs on packages of foods high in added sugar, saturated fats, calories and added sodium. Nothing with black stop signs can be sold or promoted in schools, further protecting children.
In 2010, sugar sweetened beverages were estimated to cause 12% of all diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity-related cancer deaths in Mexico, according to Dariush Mozaffarian, the dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. He says that the epidemic of these lifestyle-related diseases and the coronavirus pandemic are “harmfully synergistic.”
Mozaffarian says Oaxaca’s ban is a watershed event in food policy, likening it to the Food and Drug Administration’s ban on trans fats in 2015.
“In Mexico and the United Kingdom, we are seeing people at the highest levels talking about the incredible links between lifestyle-related diseases and worse outcomes with COVID-19,” he says.
Still, he is pessimistic about the United States following suit.
“In our country, there is all this focus on hand-washing and mask-wearing, but where is the focus on improving metabolic health? It should be the third leg of the stool,” he says. “We spend $11,000 per person on health care — public, private and out of pocket — if we could leverage some of those dollars for food it would be highly cost-effective.”
In recent years, Latin American countries have been in the vanguard of efforts to tax or regulate sugary beverages and junk foods. In Chile, the Senate passed strict food labeling laws. Mexico imposed a tax on sugary drinks and junk food, and Brazil opted for voluntary measures, such as rewriting its dietary guidelines with clear and forceful language about proper diet, that have proved effective. Barry Popkin, an obesity researcher at the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says Colombia and Brazil are pushing to pass laws requiring food warning labeling.
Popkin, who has researched the rise of ultra-processed food across the low- and middle-income world, says the pandemic has exacerbated the obesity epidemic.
“COVID is accelerating it. We’re seeing new lines of junk food introduced, see companies giving out free junk food and calling it disaster relief,” he says. “It’s very stressful, so you go for comfort foods and tasty things. And we expect the recession will take hold and we’re going to hit a food-insecure world where people are buying this food because it’s cheap.”
Popkin says working from home, limiting social visits and a reduction in everyday activities have made it difficult to achieve or sustain a healthy weight for people around the world. And visiting the grocery store less often has put a premium on highly processed junk foods and sugary beverages that are less expensive and more shelf-stable.
“In most of the places I’m looking at in Latin America, Asia and Africa, purchases of junk food and all shelf-stable and sugary beverages have increased,” Popkin says.
Simon Barquera, the director of the nutrition research center at the National Institute of Public Health in Cuernavaca, says the new laws in Oaxaca and Tabasco took the junk food industry by surprise.
“They have been preparing for the labeling change in October,” he says. “This is a case where civil society organizations and academia have joined, using social media, to show how this must be taken seriously. In more-developed countries, they have the same kinds of packaging and misleading labels, but consumers are more informed; they have other ways to protect themselves.”