From the exit of San Cristóbal de las Casas to Pocolum, a journey of just 50 kilometers in Chiapas, there have been 167 points of sale where you can buy coca-cola. “It is the most accessible product, if you are looking for tortillas or fruits you have to walk more”, says Marcos Arana, researcher at the Salvador Zubirán National Institute of Medical Sciences and Nutrition. And it says more: “3% of children under six months drink bottled soft drinks in Chiapas, according to a 2016 study”. The shocking data does not end there. They are similar to those that occur in Oaxaca, another of the poorest states with the largest indigenous population in Mexico, where a quarter of children between 5 and 11 years old are overweight or obese. This week, the Oaxacan Congress has prohibited the sale, distribution, gift and supply to minors of sugary drinks and high-calorie packaged foods, a measure welcomed by the federal government, which has been publicly repeating for some months that these products are “Poison”, something that is not easy to hear from the rulers with such clarity, given the economic power of the large production companies.
The coronavirus pandemic has brought up an issue that has been worrying health authorities from afar: Mexico is the country in the world where more soft drinks are consumed and the second in obesity rates. Diabetes is the second leading cause of death, with more than 106,000 deaths a year, according to official statistics. In 2000 it was 46,000. This is one of the diseases that collaborates most effectively with the coronavirus. In 2016, the high prevalence of these pathologies led the Ministry of Health to declare a health emergency throughout the country, ratified in 2018. But the figures do not stop growing.
In Oaxaca it is also worrying that seven out of 10 children are much fatter than healthy. “We have prohibited the sale of these products to minors under 18, the same as with alcohol and cigarettes. Not so parents, under their tutelage they can take it if they want, but we are sending a message that they are being poisoned with this intake, people tend to think that if they are allowed they are good, “says Magaly López, the deputy of Morena. , the federal government party, which has insisted on this measure, since 2008, until it is achieved. “For transnationals there is no difficult path to poison our communities,” she adds without fear.
The deputy is aware that there is still work to be done, but points out that the legal project has been signed by 73 organizations and has the support of FAO, Unicef, the High Commissioner for Human Rights and others, in whose recommendations for health and child nutrition have relied on drafting this rule, which establishes penalties for non-compliance.
Legislation is only a first step in Mexico, where the journey of the laws is usually very short. In 2014, another rule came into force that prohibited the distribution of these products, pastries, soft drinks, in all educational centers, but you just have to take a walk through the schools to see that things continue almost as usual. Although many of those consulted for this report see in the new government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador the will for this to change. The diseases mentioned above, diabetes, above all, is equivalent to the majority of the budget that is handled for Health throughout the country. In the case of Oaxaca, the vigilance so that the new norm is fulfilled is now in the hands of the Secretary of Health of that State.
Soft drinks and trinkets of all kinds are sold on every corner and even in pharmacies. The supermarket shelves are a feast of colors, blue, pink, orange, green and dark drinks. It will not be easy for a store owner to determine what products he can sell or not, even when the measure takes effect in Oaxaca, because the federal labeling standard and the stamps that indicate that these products are above the admissible calories will not be available until December, now stopped by a judicial protection. In addition, the Oaxacan regulations, which are already being observed by other states, such as Tabasco, run the risk of confronting production companies for defects in form.
“There are semantic inconsistencies,” begins Germán Santillán, director of the Association of Chocolatiers of Oaxaca. “It is too general, we are concerned that this will affect traditional products, nothing assures us that it will not be the case and that will go against small producers, who have made an effort to professionalize themselves, to design a container, to give a brand to your product, for trying to compete in the market. Is having a packaging now a bad thing? It is difficult to be an entrepreneur in this country ”, he complains. “It is always up to them, the formal economy, the one that pays taxes,” he adds.
“There are 40,000 deaths associated with sugary drinks in Mexico each year and 70% of the added sugar in the Mexican diet comes from these soft drinks,” says Alejandro Calvillo, director of the organization El Poder del Consumidor. It resorts to a study by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) in which it is collected that the Mexican consumes an average of 264 kilos of these products per year. So are the stockings. But the truth is that the most affected populations are the poorest, where the rates of obesity and associated diseases are more serious. In Mexico that has a simple translation: indigenous communities, about 25 million people out of a total in the country of 127 million.
There is a common saying: potable water does not reach these communities, but the Coca-Cola truck does. And it is true. At the top of the Guerrero mountain, the Tlapanecos have breakfast with their corn pozole from the cauldron on the fire and accompany it with all kinds of soft drinks. Millions of children eat breakfast, lunch and dinner with these sugary drinks. “It is true that in many communities there is no potable water to drink at home and that is the responsibility of the State. The main health action, more important than vaccines and food assistance, would be to bring water to these communities. Their main causes of death would be reduced, ”states researcher Marcos Arana bluntly.
“Large companies remedy the high sugar content with artificial sweeteners, which can pose a similar threat, such as non-caloric sweeteners, aspartame and others with dire consequences. They are a poison, yes, ”continues Arana. He knows closely the case of Los Altos de Chiapas, “where the price of these drinks is lower in small communities than in other cities, and the little shops in rural towns have many refrigerators where these bottles are sold, with fees subsidized electricity to alleviate the economic burden on the indigenous population. So they are selling cold drinks with public money. ” There are other practices that the researcher clearly compares with “drug dealing.” “The companies give away their products to consumer families and convince them to sell to neighbors. That creates a terrible dependency. There is no more accessible product ”, he says.
Numerous studies point to the great addictive power of sugar, which millions of children have fallen into from an early age. “They shouldn’t take it until after two years, but they are very exposed and when they grow up they reject anything that is not sugary or salty. They are addictive personalities. This same year, in February, the WHO, Unicef and the medical journal Lancet they pointed out three major global threats: climate change, environmental pollution, and commercial pressures that encourage unhealthy lifestyles. All of them in turn generate threats of violence and war, ”continues Arana.
But industry and merchants deny the greatest. Cuauhtémoc Rivera, spokesman for the National Alliance of Small Merchants (Anpec), believes that “Mexicans are fat because they eat very tasty, it is a cultural identity, they eat donuts, tacos, cakes, tamales, tlacoyos, tlayudas, churros.” He adds that it is also a question of poverty: “People do not eat what they should and when they should, but what they can and when they can.” However, he says that in Las Lomas, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Mexico City, “there are also fat people.” Again the tasty and cultural question. “The diabetes thing is because society is stressed by not knowing what is going to happen. Banning does not fix anything, it will only worsen the economic situation. We shouldn’t even be talking about this, “he says,” but what are we going to do if he wins? [Joe] Biden [en Estados Unidos]. Those are the great themes of the country ”.
Rivera says that “prohibiting, as Oaxaca has done, does not solve anything, they assume that young people do not have the ability to discern about their consumption and are only attacking the messenger, who is the one who runs the family errands, the one who goes to the store”. Yes, but before banning the sale of cigarettes to minors, many children went to the store to buy it for their parents, supposedly… “I am liberal, I bet on those mistakes. I think they should live their life in freedom. [Lo de Oaxaca] It is an authoritative message and without reason. It’s going to be easier in this country to buy marijuana than a soda, ”Rivera gets irritated.
A study in 2016 determined that 90% of elementary school boys and girls have cavities. “This is not usually talked about and it is the same problem, sugar. Caries is normalized. 30 years ago that did not happen among the indigenous population. I remember a study in the 70s of a Californian who photographed the children of these communities with wide smiles full of white teeth and when she returned in the 90s she was amazed. Tooth decay was one of the reasons why sugar regulation was undertaken in the United States, ”says Alejandro Calvillo.
Is it too late to take measures like those in Oaxaca? How many generations are already affected by sugar addiction? “We are so late that the obesity and diabetes rates are there. These measures are urgent so that new generations do not grow up the same, drinking Coca-Cola since they were babies, ”says Arana.
Saying Femsa is the same as saying Coca-Cola in Mexico. Femsa is the largest spark of life bottling company in the world, as indicated on its website, with business ramifications in various parts of Latin America. There is no way to talk about sugary drinks or obesity without the power of this company coming out on the lips of all those consulted. She is also the owner of the OXXO stores, thousands of them throughout Mexico, on every corner, where these products are sold whose sale is now prohibited to minors in Oaxaca. Femsa sends a statement for this report that expresses a temperate position.
“We agree with the intention of the Oaxaca State Congress to promote health among children and young people, so we reiterate our openness to dialogue and appropriate measures for the context in which we live,” they say, but warn that this prohibition “could have adverse effects on the Oaxacan economy as a whole ”. They are waiting for the legislation to complete its procedures and hope to share with all sectors the search for “alternatives that allow the construction of projects for the benefit of Oaxacan children and attend to health issues.” There is no time to lose, the mortality figures in Mexico associated with sugar are unequivocal. And with the pandemic, a high price will be paid.