Can Mexico’s health program teach the U.S. to lose weight?

May 25, 2014 at 10:52 AM EDT
With obesity levels rivaling those seen in the United States, Mexico has launched a rigorous campaign to combat the epidemic, including taxes on sugary drinks and other high-calorie snack foods. How well is that strategy is working -- and what lessons can U.S. policy makers learn from their Mexican counterparts?

This report originally aired on February 16, 2014.

MARTIN FLETCHER: Every Sunday in Mexico City tens of thousands answer their president’s challenge: to exercise one hour a day. Mexico’s health ministry says its citizens are too fat.

Yoga class along the city’s main Reforma Avenue. Nearby, Zumba. Five straight hours of Latin American dance and aerobics. All overseen by Horacio de la Vega, a Mexican pentathlete in two Olympics.

You see that 30 percent of people in Mexico are obese and 70percent  are overweight.


MARTIN FLETCHER: And you’re an Olympic athlete. How do you feel about that?

HORACIO DE LA VEGA: It’s a very important problem. It’s sad that we actually came to this point. It’s painful, but it has a lot to do with education, with the culture, and we’re trying to make a lot of efforts to make this revert.

MARTIN FLETCHER: We met Diana Cardona at the Zumba dance. At barely five feet, this thirty year old mother has struggled with her weight her whole life. Zumba has helped her lose 20 pounds — she’s hoping to lose 20 more. The Zumba class is certainly hard to resist — a catchy part of what Mexico calls its three pillars to fight obesity.

So this is the pillar number one: more exercise for the people. I think I’ve lost a little bit of weight. Maybe.

After more sport comes number two: a healthier diet. But it’s pillar number three that has the whole world watching.

Taxation of junk food. With one and a half billion people overweight around the globe, Mexico’s battle of the bulge has become a test case in the fight against obesity. The new taxes are: eight per cent on food high in saturated fat, sugar and salt, like sweet breads and cakes. About nine per cent on sugary drinks like cola.

LUIS VIDEGARAY, SECRETARY OF FINANCE AND PUBLIC CREDIT, MEXICO: We’re doing a lot of education programs, health programs to change the habits of people, but we are also using incentives, and taxes can be powerful incentives. I’m an economist, so I believe in incentives, and I think this should have an effect on how people select what to drink and what to eat.

MARTIN FLETCHER: Commercials pound the message: exercise and eat healthy, every day, similar to the New York anti-obesity message of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. And that’s no coincidence. Bloomberg’s philanthropic organization has pledged $10 million dollars to help finance Mexico’s anti-obesity campaign.

Jorge Romo, chief lawyer for Mexico’s beverage industry association, says that since the taxes were introduced January the first this year, consumption is already down five per cent — but he believes it will go up again.

JORGE ROMO, MEXICAN NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF SOFT DRINKS AND CARBONATED WATER: We are not convinced that by putting a new tax for soft drinks, in addition to other taxes that they already pay, it’s going to be a solution. And the reason is that it’s an old customs — custom in Mexico to drink soft drinks.

MARTIN FLETCHER: But that’s exactly the point, isn’t it? To reduce the consumption of sugar because sugar leads to obesity.

JORGE ROMO: Yes, but if you taxed only the drinks which are bottled, then why not the other ones? There is an unequitable situation. And in talking of equity, that’s a main reason that the tax might be unconstitutional, because you cannot tax some product and the other ones not.

MARTIN FLETCHER: What Romo’s getting at: the new tax only levies extra pesos on bottled or canned soft drinks and packaged snacks, not the fatty foods and drinks sold on the street.

Still Mexicans drink more Coca Cola products per capita than anyone else in the world. Visiting a mobile health clinic, Maria Castillo has had hypertension for 23 years and diabetes for five.

How much Coca Cola do you drink every day?

For the family, three liters she says.

Three liters a day? Three liters of Coca Cola, so it’s one liter a day each person more or less?

She says, yes it’s bad. And tortilla and bread. That’s what makes us fat.

Mexico’s Coca Cola franchise declined our interview request. But industry lawyer Romo — who represents Coke among other brands — says the soft drink companies aren’t the only culprits in the obesity crisis.

But it’s the amount of sugar — there is so much sugar in these drinks.

JORGE ROMO: Maybe it is the amount of sugar, but if it is the only energy they consume, they eat or they drink, so no problem. And if they exercise no problem at all. It’s very expensive to buy fruit, to buy vegetables, so they only eating fried food.

MARTIN FLETCHER: With fifty percent of Mexicans living below the poverty line, cost is critical.

Doesn’t it just make it more expensive for the people who can’t afford to buy anything else?

LUIS VIDEGARAY, SECRETARY OF FINANCE AND PUBLIC CREDIT, MEXICO: But there are alternatives. The taxes — the taxes are only taxing high calorie foods and sugary drinks. There are other foods and other drinks available that are not being taxed, and we want exactly that shift in consumption patterns.

MARTIN FLETCHER: Perhaps easier said than done, especially in a country where even locals shy away from the tap water, often leaving bottled drinks as the only option.

Back at home, Diana from Zumba class has changed her eating habits over the past year. The children eat rice, tomatoes, peas, tortilla, and guacamole. A year ago it was fries, takeaway pizzas, hamburgers, cans of cola. If she hadn’t gone on the diet, she says, I’d be this big! And she feels better. Look at the badge behind her.

‘Me siento magnifico.’ That’s Spanish for ‘I feel magnificent.’


MARTIN FLETCHER: It’s too early to say what the effect of taxation will be as a tool against obesity. Even its supporters say an increase of eight to ten percent is just not enough, but the government argues it’s the message that counts. Healthy eating saves lives.

In a local initiative by Mexico City, for those who don’t go to the gym, the gym comes to them. Three hundred so-called urban gyms were set up last year, three hundred more will be opened this year, and the same again next year.

With medical and psychological advice, and check-ups, all provided free by the city. Prevention, the mayor says, is cheaper than treatment.

Maria Gonzales is the city psychologist in charge of these urban gyms.

MARIA GONZALES, MEXICO CITY GOVERNMENT: We want the people to be healthy.

MARTIN FLETCHER: And when you see the people come to you, are they healthy?

MARIA GONZALES: Most of them no. But they come here and they start wanting to have a better way of living. A healthy life, a healthy style of living.

MARTIN FLETCHER: The biggest challenge is to start them young – all research shows that if a child is overweight at age five, most always will be. Esperanza and Citlali are five – they don’t know much about new taxes – but the government says higher taxes on junk food will make families buy less – and their children will be healthier, and live longer.