But for Mexico, the vast appetite for sodas, chips, snacks, sweets — all manner of what they call here “comida chatarra,” or junk food — has helped inflate an overweight nation to obesity levels rivaled only by those lumpen gringos to the north.
These two forces have now collided in a sumo-style conflict that is testing the power of Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico’s svelte new president. With his proposed tax hikes on sugary drinks and snacks, Peña Nieto has angered an industry led by junk-food barons with global reach and political muscle. Four of Mexico’s 15 biggest public companies, as ranked by Forbes — including No. 2 Femsa, which makes and distributes Coca-Cola and owns the ubiquitous Oxxo convenience stores that stock it — sell the drinks and snacks that could be made more expensive by the taxes.
America’s largest baking company is actually now Mexican: Grupo Bimbo, the Mexican food empire, owns well-known brands in the United States, such as Sara Lee, Entenmann’s, Boboli and Thomas’ English Muffins, and has about 25,000 employees north of the border. Mexico has the highest per-capita soda consumption in the world, and among the highest rates of diabetes, according to academic studies and industry consultants.
“Mexico is the world champion of consuming sugary beverages,” said Juan Rivera Dommarco, head of the government’s Center of Investigation in Nutrition and Health, which supports the tax increase. More than two-thirds of Mexican adults are overweight, he said.
The lower house of Mexico’s National Congress passed the president’s tax increase this month, ratcheting up the pressure for junk-food companies. The Senate is expected to vote in coming days.
The junk-food taxes — 1 peso per liter, or the equivalent of 8 cents, on sugary drinks, and 5 percent on high-calorie snacks — are part of a larger fiscal reform package by Peña Nieto’s government intended to boost revenue. The portion related to soda taxes is intended to raise some $950 million annually. But the larger mission “is to try to change people’s behavior,” said Christopher Wilson, an associate at the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. “The goal should be to make Mexico a healthier country.”
On the president’s side in this struggle is Michael R. Bloomberg, the billionaire who is mayor of New York. He has tried, and so far failed, to ban oversize sodas in his own city. Bloomberg Philanthropies has spent million to lobby in favor of the Mexican soda tax and fund research organizations to study issues related to obesity.
Dueling full-page newspaper ads are now daily fare. Stirring up some nationalist fervor, the main soft-drink industry group in Mexico has been paying for red, white and blue ads trumpeting “No to the Bloomberg Tax!” and saying the mayor is behind a campaign to “demonize sugary drinks.”