As lawmakers in Oaxaca gathered inside the state Congress 10 days ago, shopkeepers and street sellers congregated on the street to protest the proposal of a radical new law. As the cheers from inside the building reached the curb, it became clear that it would no longer be legal to sell sugary junk food to children across the state.
A combination of decades-long complacency and a rising Covid death tally had forced the government to take bold new steps toward a healthier future in the hope that the state would one day lose its title as leader in levels of childhood obesity.
Obesity in Mexico, as in Oaxaca, is no new phenomenon, and varying claims of how to tackle this epidemic range from an all-out ban to more comprehensive health education. While the latter is severely lacking, the former seems to be the favorite direction for many lawmakers country-wide, with many states testing the waters of prohibition.
The sugar tax introduced in early 2014 embodied a step in the right direction, but this new ban in Oaxaca shows how lawmakers at a state level simply don’t believe progress is being made fast enough.
The new law will put a complete ban on the sale of sugar-filled junk food to children, with harsh penalties on any sellers that disobey the directive including fines, and even jail time for repeat offenders. For all intents and purposes, sugary snacks now exist in the same category as cigarettes and alcohol — at least as far as the law goes.
This may go some way to reversing some of the cultural misinformation and cognitive dissonance that exists across Mexico and that sees sugary products pushed upon children by advertisers and family members in equal measure.
About 10% of children below the age of six months are fed soda regularly, while by the time the age hits 2, the figure is closer to 80%. Sodas are incredibly normalized. In fact, sugary drinks are simply not treated with the same caution as other harmful products, partly down to the familial preference toward having visibly well-fed children who, it could never be claimed, were going hungry.
All of this has been encouraged by the bloated food and drink industry that has, through decades of cultural influence, carved a reserved place in every family’s kitchen for its cheap and cheerful sodas.
Sugary drinks are so ingrained into the culture, but the culture itself is not where the problem ends. Historically, bastions of the sugar industry such as Coca-Cola have been capitalizing on necessity in order to sell their product to a desperate market, with many towns struggling for clean water somehow managing to find tienditas stocked with 5-peso Cola bottles.
With coke costing about the same price as bottled water, and seemingly far more common in many areas, it is no wonder that Mexico quickly became the biggest consumer of sodas in the world, beating the U.S. by 40%, and while nowadays clean water is much less of an issue, the impact of a devastating, generation-long campaign by sugar giants has made Coke an undeniable Mexican staple.
There is a similar narrative throughout the junk food industry, and beginning to unfuse sugar from the very essence of Mexican culture is no easy task. How do we deter the consumption of sugar when it is so ridiculously cheap? How do we limit the soft powers of advertising giants that perpetuate health myths? Most importantly, how do we prevent sugar companies filling the absent space of government provision and picking up the health authority’s ever-growing slack?
One answer may hark back to positive campaigns of the past, such as the sugar tax of 2014. This initiative placed a 1-peso increase on each liter of drinks with added sugar, resulting in a 10% overall increase in cost for the consumer. A study published by the National Institute of Public Health after this recorded a 12% decrease in the household purchase of sugary drinks; results not to be sniffed at, but hardly groundbreaking in a country where obesity kills nearly seven times more people than the drug war.
This idea also puts the pressure on the poorest families for whom a 10% increase is a significant sum, not the wealthier families who can, and do, continue purchasing sugary drinks without incurring any financial hardship. Economic prejudices are always common in tackling health crises, but a truly effective remedy is going to have to be one that doesn’t discriminate based upon wealth. Financial inequality is so often the root cause of health epidemics, that tackling them must recognize the fact, and implement measures that protect all stratas of society.
The coronavirus has, unfortunately, made this all too clear. This disease has disproportionately affected those in society without the means to meaningfully distance themselves from others, and those without the assistance of world-class healthcare. If this wasn’t enough to get us thinking once again about the immediate health dangers of poverty, we have been slowly learning throughout the pandemic that those with diabetes and heart problems are far more likely to die of the coronavirus; let’s not forget that diabetes and heart problems are the most common side effects of obesity which, we know, disproportionately devastates the poorest in society.
So perhaps the decision taken last week by the state of Oaxaca is, in fact, the closest thing to an intuitive solution. It is by no means perfect, and in fact there is arguably going to be a jarring knock-on effect for shop owners and street sellers, but in terms of recognizing the sheer scale of the issue, it is at least respectful of the situation as it stands.
Policies such as these, however, are only going to be effective with a targeted campaign from the health authorities that seeks to undermine the influence of sugar companies and advertising agencies who have had their rein for far too long. Essentially, the aim must be to expunge the prevalence of sugar from the Mexican canon, and slowly begin to recognize the ways in which the country has become a playground for the industry of ill health.
Only then might families across Mexico partake in the denormalizing of sugar in their lives, helping to deconstruct the candy culture.
Jack Gooderidge writes from Campeche.