Thirty per cent of children in Mexico are obese

Thirty per cent of children in Mexico are obese

Mexico is a country battling diet-related health problems. The nation's diabetes right is the highest among the members of the OECD. Last year, legislation was passed for a tax on high-calorie foods. Now, food manufacturers operating in Mexico have had restrictions placed on their advertising. Paula Krizanovic reports. 

Getting children to ask their parents for nutritional snacks instead of candy or other highly calorific food is a challenge the world over. But, Mexico, with around 30% of its children classed as obese, is determined to get its population eating a more balanced diet - and has again turned to regulation to assist its cause.

Just months after a tax was introduced on high-calorie foods, Mexico has banned commercials for sodas, snacks, confectionery, chocolate and chocolate by-products on TV, cable and movie theatres during children's viewing hours.

Restrictions on TV and cable run from 14:30 to 19:30 from Monday to Friday, and from 07:00 to 19:30 on weekends. At cinemas, the ban covers films classified as A -for all audiences - and AA (comprehensible for children under 7). 

"The goal is that advertising directed to children, especially for ages between four and 12, begins to favour products with high nutritional value and adequate calorific content, in the light of the current weight problem," Mexico's commissioner for health operations, Álvaro Pérez Vega, told just-food. 

The ad ban will affect about 40% of the advertising spots used by snacks and confectionery manufacturers. "The food industry has shown its commitment to comply with the regulations," Pérez Vega said.

During the first week under the new law, some 97% of ads transmitted during the restricted time periods were in agreement with the new rules, according to data compiled by COFEPRIS, Mexico's federal commission that regulates food advertising.

COFEPRIS said only six spots among 200 aired were in violation of the regulation. The ads belonged to Nestlé for its Nesquik Duo cereal, Hershey for its chocolate flavoured milk and Holanda, Unilever's local ice cream brand, as well as for soft drinks from Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo. The ads were taken off the air and companies were sanctioned with reprimands and even fines of between MXN130,000 and MXN$1.08m, Pérez Vega said.

Nestlé and Hershey refused to comment when contacted by just-food. Unilever mentioned said the issue was "dealt with at that moment". A spokesperson added: "At Unilever we strictly follow the law."

Brands can advertise around children's programming if they meet a new set of nutritional criteria drawn up by the Mexican government. These include a limit of 30g of sugar and 500mg of sodium for each 100g of cereal, as well as 210 calories per unit. Cookies can have 30g of sugar and 450mg of sodium for each 100g, as well as 160 calories per package. And confectionery snacks are allowed 10g of sugar and 650mg of sodium for each 100g, and 170 calories per bag. 

Pérez Vega says companies that comply with these requirements are allowed to advertise during the restricted time periods - and adds brands that qualify can apply for a label to place on their products.

"There's a voluntary mechanism through which the food items that adjust to these limits for their category can obtain a nutritional badge that represents the evaluation of COFEPRIS and their adequacy in terms of the federal government's strategy," he explains. "Therefore, those products can advertise freely [around] any programme and time."

COFEPRIS has received 97 applications for the nutritional seal and has only granted nine badges to different milk products manufactured by Liconsa, which are designed for children's nutritional programmes throughout the country. 

Another eleven requests have been denied, and correspond to chocolate-flavoured cereal, chocolate ice cream and cookies. A further 77 are still under evaluation, Pérez Vega reveals.

However, brands that do not meet the new nutritional criteria are still free to advertise on the Internet or outdoors. Consumer associations in Mexico are unhappy with the new regulations. El Poder del Consumidor and Alianza por la Salud Alimentaria, conducted a comparative study between Mexico's new rules on advertising and those in place in countries from Perú to Denmark. They argue Mexico's regulation "will not have an effect on public health and might even be counter-productive, given the measures are between a 100% and 300% more permissive than the ones applied in other countries".  

These organisations are demanding the criteria established by the Mexican government be revised. They also want the ban to be applied "to other media and spaces in which communication has a larger impact", such as the Internet, print and outdoor ads.

The likes of El Poder del Consumidor and Alianza por la Salud Alimentaria would point to comments from Mexico-based soft drinks and snacks group Arca Continental, which owns the Bokados snacks business in Mexico. Speaking to just-food, a spokesperson for Arca said the new ad rules "did not have a significant effect on our marketing strategy". He added: "Specifically for the confectionery business of our brand Bokados, we usually concentrate most of the advertising investment in points of sale and other media, instead of television."

The restrictions on advertising is Mexico's latest attempt to tackle obesity. There are signs the tax measure it introduced last year has had an effect. Bakery giant Grupo Bimbo and local Coke bottler Coca-Cola Femsa said last month the tax had affected their sales in Mexico.

Next year, new regulations will come into force requiring food companies to show on labels the amount of sugar and fat in their products, another weapon in Mexico's battle to curb obesity, which, according to local estimates, could cost the country US$11.7bn by 2017.