ConMéxico reacts: 'Our lobbying is legal, legitimate and transparent'

Conflicts of interest fueled Mexico's obesity inaction: 'The Ministry of Health was co-opted by industry,' alleges report

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

Mexico City © GettyImages/diegograndi
Mexico City © GettyImages/diegograndi

Related tags Obesity sugar tax Nutrition labelling

Mexico's lack of action to tackle its obesity crisis over the past six years may be due to policymakers' close ties with the food and drink industry, according to a report by consumer rights group El Poder del Consumidor.

The study looked at the number of public health policies proposed by Mexican deputies over the past two legislative terms (known as LXII, which ran from 2012 to 2015 and LXIII, which ran from 2015 to 2018).

The vast majority of these proposals were either rejected or put on hold, which, the study alleges was due to politicians' close ties to the food and drink industry and the resultant conflicts of interest.

The study was commissioned by El Poder del Consumidor and carried out by Probatio, a consultancy specialized in evaluating public policy. 

"These are serious results,"​ said Alejandro Calvillo, director of El Poder del Consumidor, presenting the results at a conference this week. 

"In the midst of a public health catastrophe caused by obesity and diabetes - which [Mexico] has declared an epidemiological emergency, something no other country has done - the legislative power is proposing nothing to tackle it. Nothing."

According to Calvillo, the Mexican Ministry of Health and the Federal Commission for the Protection against Sanitary Risk (COFEPRIS) were "co-opted by the industry" ​during the past two legislative terms.

This stood in contrast to the governments in other Latin American countries, such as Chile and Peru, that acted to protect public health with strict rules on food labeling and advertising, he added.

Lack of experience or independence? 

While such measures usually come from the federal administration, the legislative power in Mexico is also jointly responsible, said El Poder del Consumidor.

“The study confirms that the General Congress of the United Mexican States, both in its collective action (through the Commissions) and its individual action (through legislators), adopted an unfavorable position regarding health and nutrition policies,”​ reads the report.

The study authors offered two possible reasons for this lack of action: either the incompetence of Mexico’s legislators or conflicts of interest due to close ties with the food industry.

However, given that a majority of congress members (61.5%) who proposed initiatives had previous parliamentary experience, they reject a lack of legislative experience as a possibility. Instead, after analyzing legislators’ ties to industry, the study concludes conflicts of interest were the main reason.

Mexico's current labeling system. Source: COFEPRIS

“Each and every one of the five Commissions that took part in assessing these initiatives [...] had members linked to the food and drink industry,” ​it said, adding that the number of industry ties rose between 2015 and 2018.

Such links mean that Mexican policymakers “protect food and drink industry interests despite the tangible damages associated with the intake of sugary drinks and unhealthy foods", ​it said.

They also resulted in “the creation of a front-of-pack label designed by the industry itself, which even nutrition students cannot understand​,” said El Poder del Consumidor.

ConMéxico: 'Our lobbying is legal, legitimate and transparent'

However, Lorena Cerdán Torres, general director of ConMéxico, the trade association representing consumer packaged goods (CPG) manufacturers, said that lobbying activities carried out by both and private and social sectors were "legal, legitimate and transparent" ​with each lobbyist registered with Congress.

"As consumer goods trade association we follow any legislative discussion involved with our agenda, and [just like] NGOs do, we talk with decision-makers,"​ she told FoodNavigator. "ConMéxico lobbying activities are guided by high ethical standards properly reflected in our Code of Ethics.

"We don’t have ​a specific position about this report, because it is not clear which criteria they take to classify legislative initiatives as 'favorable or unfavorable for health'. These kind of statistics are superficial because they don’t analyze the legal basis and viability of each legislative project. 

In November 2016, Mexico became the first country in the world ​to declare its obesity crisis an epidemiological emergency​.

Between 1988 and 2012, levels of overweight and obesity rose in all population groups​, rising from 28.6% to 36.9% among 5 to 11 year-olds and from 11.1 to 35.8% in adolescents.

An estimated 70.5% of women aged between 20 and 49 are either overweight or obese, according to figures cited in a 2018 study by the National Institute of Public Health​.

In 2014, it brought in a sugar tax​ of one peso per liter of non-alcoholic, sugar-sweetened drinks, roughly equivalent to a 10% price increase.

El Poder del Consumidor wants to see this increased to 20%, as per World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines, as well as stricter rules on food marketing and advertising to children and an effective front-of-pack nutrition label.

El Poder del Consumidor has called on Mexican legislators to tackle the obesity crisis with policies that put public health – rather than industry’s profits – first.

Based on the findings of the study, it makes three recommendations for immediate action: identify possible conflicts of interest within the Commissions; systematically request access to information on meetings between legislators or Commission members and trade associations; and complement citizens’ initiatives regarding policy proposals.

The study

The study looked in detail at 56 proposed bills during the past two legislatures related to public health and nutrition.

It said three of these 56 initiatives were “clearly supportive​” of the food and drink industry.

The others attempted to promote public health by a number of measures, including restricting the supply and availability of unhealthy products (13 proposed measures); taxes (9); front-of-pack labeling and nutrition information (14); on-pack health warnings (9) and limiting junk food advertising to children (8).

Of these 53 attempts to protect public health presented by members of the Congress, however, only two (both related to food in schools) were approved.

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