By Romina González
It is a fact that soft drink consumption affects health. Several national and international scientific studies have found that people who frequently consume soft drinks can develop obesity, type-2 diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, chronic kidney disease, tooth decay, and even some types of cancer. This information is not new; however, the topic of chronic disease has become more relevant today. The current coronavirus pandemic has shown that the majority of deaths from COVID-19 in Mexico are occurring in people with one or more chronic diseases, even in young populations. The new coronavirus focused the government’s attention on the burden of chronic diseases that have been increasing in the country for several years.
Although chronic diseases have a variety of causes, eating habits have a significant impact. These eating habits are promoted by the obesogenic environment, especially in the most vulnerable populations. The population is exposed to a vast promotion of soft drinks and other ultra-processed foods aimed at minors and adults. Television advertising seen during family times, advertisements on the internet and social networks, as well as the characters on the packaging of ultra-processed beverages and foods, make childhood and adolescents an easy target. On the other hand, the wide distribution of points of sale in various regions of the country and the accessible costs of such foods encourage consumption by the lower socioeconomic and education level population. The obesogenic environment has influenced Mexico to occupy first place worldwide for the consumption of soft drinks.
From public health, it is known that changing eating habits should not be the responsibility of individuals alone; it should be an act of joint responsibility with governments. Since 2010, Mexico has implemented a restriction on junk food advertising for children; however, this strategy did not have the expected success. Nonetheless, other interventions have contributed to reducing the consumption of unhealthy foods and beverages. In 2014, the sale of junk food and beverages was banned in public and private schools, and a special tax was imposed on soft drinks for the entire population. In the middle of 2020, the new warning labeling on ultra-processed foods and beverages was implemented. A recent study by the National Institute of Public Health of Mexico found that new labeling can reduce 1.3 million cases of obesity over the next 5 years.
Days ago, Oaxaca proclaimed a ban on the sale of soft drinks and other ultra-processed foods to minors. It is a great initiative to reduce obesity in children and future implications for their health in adulthood. The Oaxaca initiative is a local effort that can be replicated in other states, even becoming federal policy, just as it was done with the restriction of sale to minors for cigarettes and alcoholic beverages. We will have to learn from the experience of Oaxaca, especially how to face some barriers. For the sale restriction to be successful, adults must be aware of the benefits in the long term of healthy eating. It is necessary for the population to have access to information on healthy eating and lifestyles to replace the consumption of beverages and ultra-processed foods; that healthy foods are available in their region and prices are affordable. A complement that can help the success of this ban is the new subject of Health Education that has been added for the new school year by the Ministry of Public Education.
Soft drinks and other ultra-processed foods affect health, in addition to the quality of life and the Mexican wallet. The current coronavirus pandemic has shown the vulnerability of the Mexican population to chronic diseases. The good news is that Mexico is taking measures at the public policy level. The strategies proposed to reduce the consumption of soft drinks and other ultra-processed foods, far from affecting the industrial sector, invite them to reformulate the nutritional content of their products, prioritizing the health of the population. The objective of the new regulations is to reduce and eliminate the consumption of soft drinks and other ultra-processed foods, as well as to make the population aware of their food choices to prevent chronic diseases. It is a responsibility at the governmental level to break down the socioeconomic barriers to access to healthy foods, to promote health education campaigns, and to continue to evaluate and implement public health policies.
Romina González Morales is a Clinical Psychologist by the Latin University of Mexico and an Epidemiologist by the National Institute of Public Health. She is also a researcher on the impact of sugar-sweetened beverage consumption on health in the Department of Population Health Research Center at the National Institute of Public Health.