The Mexican state of Oaxaca became one of the first places to ban the sale of junk food to children in response to the country’s rising obesity epidemic.
A report published by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development found that 73 percent of the Mexican population is overweight, with 34 percent morbidly obese. Public officials in Mexico are calling the situation a public health epidemic.
In an attempt to combat childhood obesity, Oaxaca – the Mexican state with the highest rate of childhood obesity – recently banned the sale, distribution, and promotion of sugary drinks and junk food to those under the age of 18. The law will also apply to vending machines in schools, with foods qualifying as junk food under the legislation being removed.
The announcement of the ban comes at a critical time for Mexico, as the country is reporting close to 700,000 cases of COVID-19. With the severity of the virus compounded by obesity, the country is looking to this junk food ban for a public health solution.
“I think this was clever…using COVID-19 as a backdrop to the introduction of this legislation,” Beth Weitzman, Professor of Health and Public Policy at New York University, tells Food Tank.
Weitzman is eager to see how the policy plays out over time and believes there is a chance to shift public perception of junk foods. “A multipronged approach that includes educational programs for kids, limiting advertising, and label warnings has a real chance to shape children’s choices and purchasing decisions,” Weitzman tells Food Tank.
Legislation regarding junk food is not new to Mexico. The country is set to roll out new federal labeling laws on junk food items, requiring warning labels on foods high in sugars, calories, salt, and saturated or trans fat. The new labeling laws – as of October 1st – would make policing the sale of junk food to children in Oaxaca more manageable for businesses selling these foods.
Major food producers from the United States, European Union, and Canada have called for Mexico to delay these labeling laws. These producers frequently oppose new food standards due to trade costs and profit.
In 2014, Mexico made a similar attempt to address the obesity epidemic with the implementation of a federal soda tax The one-peso-per-liter tax applies to all drinks with added sugar except milk, milk-based drinks, and beverages registered as medicines.
The soda tax has proven to be successful in the reduction of sales of sugar-sweetened beverages, according to a study published in the British Medical Journal. Despite this, major backlash came from the beverage industry and many companies fought the tax by deploying front groups in an effort to stop Mexico’s congress from passing the tax.
Similar opposition to Oaxaca’s junk food ban is already underway, focusing on the new labeling laws rather than the idea of taxing certain goods.
“Usually we think about price sensitivity and this [ban] is across the board. They’ve eliminated the equitability issue to a great degree as [the ban] is not really focusing on price…unlike taxes,” Weitzman tells Food Tank.
Weitzman, however, sees a potential for large corporations to adapt. She sees possible results, and while corporations will likely push back, they might not fight as hard because the restrictions are meant to protect children.
Since the announcement of Oaxaca’s ban in early August, Mexico has seen several other states proposing similar policies. Officials from Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Hidalgo, Zacatecas, and Mexico City have presented proposals to ban or restrict the sale of high-sugar soft drinks and high-carbohydrate snacks to children under 18.
Weitzman tells Food Tank it could very well become national law if more states start adopting similar legislation. “It’s like somebody has been sitting on a pile of good ideas about how to think about the food system and obesity. They grabbed the moment and it’s very admirable.”
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