Sweet treats and fizzy drinks are off the menu for children in southern Mexico, after the state of Oaxaca passed what is believed to be the world’s strictest ban on the sale of junk food.

The measure could see shops closed down for selling sugary beverages or processed snacks to anyone under the age of 18, while repeat offenders could be jailed.

The state congress broke out in applause after the passage of the bill — which benefited from renewed impetus amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Mexico has for decades struggled with high rates of obesity and diabetes — two major risk factors for the virus which has hit the country hard. Fatalities are now approaching 50,000, the third highest Covid-19 death toll in the world.

Oaxaca, a mountainous southern state that ranks as one of Mexico’s poorest, also has the nation’s highest rate of childhood obesity and second highest rate of adult obesity, according to official data.

That is a particularly unwelcome mantle in a country where almost three quarters of the population are overweight and which consumes more carbonated drinks per person than any other in the world.

It wasn’t always this way. Far from the cheese-laden offerings of Tex-Mex restaurants, the authentic Mexican diet is a healthy one, with a heavy focus on vegetables and seafood.

But in the 1990s, after Mexico joined the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the United States and Canada, fast food outlets and processed products began to pour across the border. In 1996, two years after it was signed, just one-fifth of Mexicans were overweight, according to a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Now, that figure stands at 73 per cent.

“We pushed for this transformation so children have a healthy nutrition that is adequate for their well-being and their development, instead of consumption habits that are dictated by interests of industry,” said Oaxacan congresswoman Magaly López Domínguez, who introduced the bill, in a speech to the state’s legislative body.

Speaking to a local radio station, she likened the measure to the prohibition of sales of cigarettes and alcohol to minors.

Ms López acknowledged that it was not an “easy” step to take and that such a move would always be controversial, but said it was essential to protect the lives and health of Oaxaca’s children.

There were remote parts of the state where there was no medicine available, she said — but there was Coca Cola.

The new law drew protest from business groups in Oaxaca, with some store owners saying it would cause further economic harm at a time when they are already struggling to survive.

But Ms López and other supporters of the bill rejected that argument, saying they could still sell such products to adults.

It was also applauded by the Mexican deputy health minister and coronavirus czar, Hugo López-Gatell. He last month branded fizzy drinks “bottled poison” and urged Mexicans not to drink them — though some accused him of seeking a scapegoat for the government’s failures over the pandemic. 

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