In August, the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca banned the sale of junk food and sugary drinks to children under the age of 18.
Mexico’s Assistant Health Secretary Hugo Lopez-Gatell, who has denounced soda as “bottled poison”, expressed support for the new law, which has begun to catch on in other Mexican states as well.
Lopez-Gatell is also the government’s coronavirus tsar, and early on highlighted the role of the country’s “epidemic” of diabetes and obesity in exacerbating the coronavirus pandemic. Mexico has reportedly recorded more than 70,000 COVID-19 related deaths to date – although the actual toll is likely much higher.
In recent years, Mexico has vied with the US for the title of most obese nation on earth – three-fourths of adults there are overweight, and at least one in 10 have diabetes.
Oaxaca, one of the poorest Mexican states, has among the highest obesity levels and the highest child obesity rate in the country.
I have been in Oaxaca since March, and can confirm that – as is the case in much of Mexico – it sometimes seems impossible to take a step without tripping over Coca-Cola advertisements or similar propaganda.
Indeed, Mexicans drink more soda per capita than any other country in the world, and former Mexican President Vicente Fox was once the CEO of Coca-Cola Mexico. In 2017, diabetes became the nation’s number one killer.
How, then, did Mexico end up in such a deadly position?
To answer this question, a good place to start is the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the US, Canada, and Mexico, which came into effect in 1994 – and was recently repackaged as something-way-better-than-NAFTA under the auspices of resident continental megalomaniac Donald Trump.
Behind the ever-convenient facade of “free trade” – which in contexts involving the US generally means the US is free to do as it pleases while the rest of the participating countries are free to suck it up – NAFTA enabled the US to flood the Mexican market with sugary drinks, processed foods, and other staples of noxious, corporate-driven existence.
American fast food chains and convenience stores rapidly proliferated, and, as the New York Times noted in a report headlined A Nasty, NAFTA-Related Surprise: Mexico’s Soaring Obesity, Walmart was the country’s largest food retailer as of 2017. This in a country whose traditional cuisine appears on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
“Food”, of course, is another term that should be used loosely when referring to products largely devoid of nutritional value that are, in fact, addictive and hazardous to human health.
To be sure, one of NAFTA’s crowning achievements was the exposure of sectors of the Mexican economy to conquest by US capital, as with the dismantling of restrictions on foreign majority ownership in Mexican businesses.
A 2016 paper in the Washington University Journal of Law & Policy argues that NAFTA-facilitated foreign direct investment by the US in Mexico has been the “most direct contributor to the spread of non-communicable diseases” like obesity in that country.
Direct US investment in Mexican food and beverage firms soared by the billions on account of the 1994 deal, exerting additional toxic influence on Mexican consumer choices – which do not really qualify as “choices” when, for example, Coca-Cola is just as cheap and often more readily available than water.
The paper, which also discusses global trends of “McDonaldisation” and “Coca-Colonisation,” cites the calculation that post-NAFTA US exports to Mexico of high-fructose corn syrup – a high-calorie sweetener used in sodas and other products and linked to obesity – were thus far “up by a factor of 863”.
NAFTA furthermore provided imperial entities with a legal apparatus to adjudicate on behalf of hypocrisy, as when US agribusiness company Cargill Inc successfully sued the Mexican government after Mexico attempted to tax the production and sale of high-fructose corn syrup-enriched soft drinks.
The US, for its part, was permitted to blissfully subsidise overproduction in its own corn industry – not to mention its meat industry, soy industry, and so on – leading, less than shockingly, to an export-based devastation of domestic Mexican production.