Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Business groups and experts on both sides of the border concur: Mexico’s new laws targeting sale of certain foods will not solve COVID-19 infections and deaths – only real investments will

Last week the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (USHCC) in collaboration with a coalition of border business leaders, expressed serious concern for proposed laws prohibiting the sale of certain foods and beverages to minors, effectively targeting the manufacturing industries in Mexico. USHCC believes these laws could not only negatively affect trade, but also affect members of the chamber on both sides of the border.

“The USHCC and our coalition members oppose any law that will harm business members and delay our economic recovery,” said Ramiro A. Cavazos, President & CEO, USHCC. “As we work together to create jobs and opportunity for the global economy during this COVID-19 pandemic, we must promote policies that provide fluidity, encourage commerce, and allow all industries to take full advantage of trade agreements such as the USMCA. State governors cannot hold thriving business sectors hostage while paralyzing crucial economic stimulus for Mexico’s already impacted business community due to COVID19. These legislative initiatives will harm our business members and other respective constituents who operate internationally” he said.

The efforts to ban the sale of sugary drinks and junk food to those under the age of 18 had been in the works  for months but did not actually take effect until about month ago. Oaxaca became the first Mexican state to officially ban the sale of these products, supposedly in response to the country’s rising obesity epidemic. The announcement comes at a critical time for Mexico, as the country is reporting over 800,000 cases of COVID-19. With the severity of the virus and the obesity rate, the country is looking to this junk food ban for a public health solution.

Not only has the government targeted the sale of sugary drinks and junk food, but this week the situation escalated when the government targeted the dairy industry. On Wednesday, the government placed an immediate ban on the sale of 19 brands of cheese and two brands of yogurt because they do not meet official standards. The ministry and the consumer protection agency Profeco said that various products called “cheese” and “natural yogurt” don’t comply with official Mexican standards because they claim to be “100% Milk” when they are not.

USHCC and the industries themselves are worried about the effect of these laws specially during a global pandemic. “Collectively, we must safeguard the free flow of commerce and binational trade created through the recent implementation of the USMCA. We encourage policy measures that promote economic stability and facilitate the expansion of foreign direct investment across all industries” said Cavazos.

Additionally, imposing draconian laws that prohibit the sale of foods and beverages as a fix to a pandemic that the Mexican government has been unable to stop, is not a real solution.  This issue was also raised in the U.S. when the CEO of Whole Foods connected better eating habits with COVID-19 outcomes.  Several influential economists, health experts and international trade leaders have weighed in on both of these:

On the issue of whether there a direct correlation between eating healthier and outcomes for COVID-19 vulnerable populations in the U.S.:

Rita Nguyen, chronic disease  physician specialist, San Francisco Department of Public Health; director, Food as Medicine Collaborative  – “Those who have diabetes, or obesity, or a number of other health conditions, have been correlated to a higher risk of severity (for COVID-19). But it’s too simple to say it’s just because of diet. You have to look at the social and economic fabric of the U.S.  You have to look at other developed countries with more robust social safely nets.  You have to look at income inequality: the greater the difference is, the worse the health outcomes are. We see a lot of inequities in health outcomes, and that is not as simple as not eating well.”

Sara Bleich, professor of public health policy at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health: “It is factually correct that you are more likely to die of Covid if you are obese. But what we’re really seeing is Covid-19 clustering among Black and brown populations, who are at higher risk for obesity, and also all sorts of other conditions, like poor housing and poor transportation. The risk of dying from Covid-19 is much higher among Black and Latino populations generally, irrespective of obesity, and that has a lot to do with where they work: in essential, frontline positions, with more exposure and less protection.

Mary Story, professor of global health and family medicine and community health, Duke Global Health Institute; director of Healthy Eating Research program at Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: “That goes against everything that we know in public health and social determinants of health. We know that disparities definitely exist in food access. We know that there’s a lack of access to healthy foods in many low-income neighborhoods. Healthy foods cost more. Fruits and vegetables cost more. Leaner forms of protein costs more. And unhealthy foods—the ultra-processed foods which are high in salt, fat and sugar—are really cheap.”

On whether the new Mexican laws will have the intended affect without real investment in public health, access to healthful foods and clean water, and a robust public education program:

Arturo Sarukhan, member of the Inter-American Dialogue’s Board of Directors and former Mexican ambassador to the United States: “Overconsumption of sugars is an important public health issue, and in recent years both governments and multilateral organizations have taken actions to improve access to healthy foods as one way to prevent noncommunicable diseases. However, sugar content should not be seen as the sole determinant of a healthy diet. Improvements in dietary patterns appear to have the greatest influence on reducing weight and cardiometabolic risk and represent the best opportunity for successful intervention, rather than outright prohibitions such as the ones some states in Mexico are attempting to enact in response to Covid-19. There’s no question that obesity and diabetes are a huge public health issue in Mexico: of the OECD nations, it has the second-highest rate of obesity, after the United States. But the linkage that has explicitly been drawn by the Mexican government between this issue and the number of coronavirus deaths not only has a chink in its armor; it also entails an own-goal scored by the country’s health authorities. Even before the emergence of the pandemic, we knew that obesity and diabetes were a major public health problem throughout the country. And as it spread from China to Europe, it soon became clear that along with other related comorbidities, they significantly increase the risk of severe disease and death. The government knew Mexico faced staggering numbers of obesity. Therefore, one should ask why in heaven’s name, knowing this, did it approach the coronavirus in the laissez-faire way it has, minimizing its effects and risks and downplaying the importance of face masks and physical distancing? Despite evidence and the fact that a big swath of the population was vulnerable, they forged ahead with a negligent public health strategy that only heightened those risks. Not a pretty picture—if not outright malfeasance—in the implementation of public policy.”

Núria Homedes, executive director of Salud y Fármacos: “The main contributors to noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) are smoking, unhealthy diets, sedentarism and harmful use of alcohol. Mexico ranks 130th and 72nd in the world in cigarette and alcohol consumption per capita, respectively, and has the highest global prevalence of children who are overweight or obese. The consumption of ultra-processed food has doubled in the last three decades, reaching 23 percent of the caloric intake, and sugary beverages constitute another 10 percent. The policies adopted by Oaxaca and Tabasco aim at changing two unhealthy habits, which are key to controlling future rates of NCDs in Mexico. However, embracing healthy habits requires knowledge, time, willingness to change and resources; and the effect of the pandemic in people’s daily lives and the economy might not be conducive to flattening barriers to change. State governments do not have the resources to deploy a massive education campaign, facilitate access to unprocessed or minimally processed foods and teach healthy cooking and eating on a budget. Sustainable behavioral changes are not achieved through prohibition, even when stringently enforced, which is unlikely to be the case. Those affected by the policy will find ways to bypass the prohibition, as they did when selling tobacco to minors was prohibited in the late 1990s. The food industry and the private sector have not welcomed these policies, they fear that more states will follow and are resentful of recent mandates to improve food labels. These state efforts seem unrelated to the poor government’s response to Covid but claiming a relationship could be an easy political target.”

Nicolás Mariscal, member of the Advisor’s board and chairman of Grupo Marhnos in Mexico City: “Prohibition won’t eradicate the obesity problem in Mexico. Packaged food only constitutes around 23 percent of Mexicans’ calorie intake; the remaining 77 percent come from unpackaged food, including street food, according to a recent study published in The Lancet. Obesity is a multifactorial challenge that must be addressed comprehensively, and the diet must be adapted to each person’s habits and lifestyle, age, gender and many other considerations. It is a matter of education and healthy habits. Prohibition laws in Mexico do not include educational programs that could help minors and their families decide responsibly what and how much to eat. Governments must invest in teaching of healthy habits, promotion of physical activity and in providing safe places for physical exercise. Better results could be achieved if companies and parents could be part of this effort. If all sectors work together with the same goal in a collaborative way, lower obesity rates could be reached in a more effective way. According to several studies in Mexico, obesity or diabetes were not the main factors behind the fatality rate among Covid-19 patients in the country, but the treatment, or lack thereof, they received in hospitals.”

Mexico and the Unites States need to ensure viable access to healthy foods and clean water, public education campaigns, investments in changing minds and habits, health care with wellness programs.  Taxing foods and beverages or outlawing their consumption will not result in the desired outcomes.  They are simply Band-Aids, distractions from real holistic robust solutions that will truly bring about a healthier population in both countries.

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