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Following Bloomberg's Lead, Mexico Aims To Fight Fat

Oct 24, 2013
Originally published on October 24, 2013 10:10 am

Nearly a third of all Mexicans are obese, putting Mexico at the top of the list of overweight nations — ahead of the United States.

In the battle against the bulge, lawmakers are taking aim at consumer's pocketbooks. They're proposing a series of new taxes on high calorie food and sodas. Health advocates say the higher prices will get Mexicans to change bad habits, but the beverage industry and small businesses are fighting back.

Moises Orozco's convenience store in a middle-class Mexico City neighborhood has been in his family for more than 30 years. He says he's watched eating habits change over that time.

Just look at his sales of gansitos, a spongy yellow cake akin to a Twinkie, filled with strawberry jelly and covered in a thin layer of chocolate. Orozco says he used to sell about 10 a week; now he sells easily six times that many. Some weeks, when he's well stocked, he sells as many as 150 gansitos.

Orozco says if the government really wanted to combat obesity it would have taxed sodas and junk food 10 years ago. He says politicians just want more money, so they go after small-business owners like him and the poor, who buy the cheap junk food.

Lawmakers are proposing a 10 percent tax on sodas, about a peso per liter, and a 5 percent increase on high-calorie snacks.

Small-business owners, the powerful beverage industry, and billionaire bottlers have launched an aggressive ad campaign against the proposal. Some full-page ads in major newspapers have focused in on the foreign influence for the taxes, especially the financial backing by U.S. billionaire Michael Bloomberg's philanthropic group.

Cuauhtemoc Rivera, head of the national association of neighborhood stores, says the New York mayor should mind his own business. He says obesity in Mexico is more complicated than just drinking too many sodas. Rivera says Mexicans' whole diet is bad, filled with what he jokingly calls too much "vitamin T."

"Tacos, tamales, tortas; we eat everything that starts with a T," Rivera says.

According to the World Health Organization, which has helped aid the pro-tax advocates, nearly 70 percent of Mexicans are now overweight. Diabetes is now one of the top killers in the country.

Alejandro Calvillo of the group Consumer Power says Mexicans are the biggest consumers of soft drinks in the world, drinking about 40 gallons per person a year. He says a 10 percent tax per liter of soda will reduce consumption by as much as 12 percent.

"We need to act," Calvillo says. "We cannot permit that this situation happen in Mexico for more time."

Calvillo, whose group lobbied for a higher soda tax and does receive money from Bloomberg Philanthropies, says the new income should be used to encourage people to drink more water.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Almost one-third of all Mexicans are obese. That puts Mexico at the top of the list of overweight nations, even ahead of the United States. Now, Mexico's lawmakers are proposing a series of new taxes on high-calorie food and sodas. Health advocates say the higher prices will get Mexicans to change bad habits. The beverage industry and small businesses are fighting back, calling the taxes job-killers.

NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: This convenience store in a middle-class Mexico City neighborhood has been in Moises Orozco's family for more than 30 years. He says he's watched eating habits change over that time. Just look at his sales of gansitos, the spongy, yellow cake akin to a Twinkie, filled with strawberry jelly and covered in a thin layer of chocolate.

MOISES OROZCO: (Spanish spoken)

KAHN: Before, we would sell, at most, 10 a week. Now he says, easily, he sells six times that much. Some weeks, when he's well-stocked, as many as 150 gansitos.

OROZCO: (Spanish spoken)

KAHN: Orozco says if the government really wanted to combat obesity, it would have taxed sodas and junk food 10 years ago. He says politicians just want more money, so they go after small business owners like himself and the poor, who buy the cheap junk food.

Lawmakers are proposing a 10 percent tax on sodas, about a peso per liter, and a 5 percent increase on high-calorie snacks. Small business owners, the powerful beverage industry, and billionaire bottlers have launched an aggressive ad campaign against the proposal. They're running full-page ads in major newspapers, and some have focused in on the foreign influence of the taxes, especially the financial backing by U.S. billionaire Michael Bloomberg's philanthropic group.

Cuauhtemoc Rivera, head of the National Association of Neighborhood Stores says the New York mayor should mind his own business. He says obesity in Mexico is more complicated than just drinking too many sodas. Rivera says Mexicans' whole diet is bad, filled with what he jokingly calls too much Vitamin T.

CUAUHTEMOC RIVIERA, NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF NEIGHBORHOOD STORES: Tacos, tamales, tortas, tlacoyos.

KAHN: Tacos, tamales, tortas - we eat everything that starts with a T. And he adds, we don't move enough, either.

With a rise in the middle-class here, Mexicans are exercising less, and eating more fats and sweets. According to the World Health Organization, which has helped aid the pro-tax advocates, nearly 70 percent of Mexicans are now overweight. Diabetes is now one of the top killers in the country.

Alejandro Calvillo, of the group Consumer Power, says Mexicans are the biggest consumers of soft drinks in the world, drinking about 40 gallons per person a year. He says a 10 percent tax per liter of soda will reduce consumption by as much as 12 percent.

ALEJANDRO CALVILLO: We need to act. We cannot permit that this situation happen in Mexico for more time.

KAHN: Calvillo, whose group lobbied for a higher soda tax and does receive money from Bloomberg Philanthropies, says the new income should be used to encourage people to drink more water.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

KAHN: Ruth Venegas says she has been trying to do just that. But as she walks out of a corner convenient store, she says it's really hard to break the soda habit.

RUTH VENEGAS: (Spanish spoken)

KAHN: She opens her bag to show me a small Diet Coke. She said she used to by the big ones before. Little by little, she'll succeed, she laughs.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.