Declare war on Coke?

Last July, during a visit to Chiapas, Mexico’s Deputy Minister of Health, the Deputy Minister of Health López-Gartley proposed that carbonated beverages are “bottled poison” and are the chief culprit in causing people to die from the new crown virus. This sounds weird, but he mentioned that about 40,000 Mexicans die every year from excessive consumption of carbonated drinks, which is about the same number as the number of new coronavirus victims recorded at the time. These products make people feel that “carbonated drinks are happiness.” Gartley said that if people are not deceived by these marketing tactics, then the health of Mexico as a whole “will be very different.”

As of mid-January this year, the number of deaths from the new crown pneumonia in Mexico has exceeded 130,000. This is mainly due to the slow response of the local government to the epidemic. However, the allegations against sugar-sweetened beverages are justified. The number of obesity and diabetes in Mexico remains high, and these two diseases can weaken people’s resistance to the new coronavirus. This is indisputable. Today, three-quarters of Mexicans are overweight, which is much higher than one-fifth in 1996. I have to admit that carbonated drinks have become part of the country’s culture.

Gartley didn’t point out the brand name of the drink directly, and he didn’t need it either. Coca-Cola is popular throughout Latin America, and its popularity in Mexico is particularly amazing. Coca-Cola’s recent data on the popularity of its beverages shows that the per capita consumption of its products in Mexico is 50% higher than the second place. Alvaro Aguilar, who runs a burger restaurant in the western state of Jalisco, said that in Mexico, drinking Coke “is a ritual, just like the French drink red wine.”

This habit was condemned by local leftists as a manifestation of the “colonization of Coca-Cola.” The most typical example is probably the town of San Juan Chamura in the hills of Chiapas, where four-month-old babies hold a baby bottle and suck Coke. In the town’s church, local Indian Zoqi pharmacists will sprinkle Coca-Cola on rows of lit candle flames to eliminate evil spirits.

Gartley blamed the Mexicans’ poor eating habits on the free trade between the United States and Mexico that began in 1994. However, before that, Coca-Cola had a prominent position in Mexico. Since the Mexicans opened the first bottle of Coke in the 1920s, Coca-Cola has become the cornerstone of an industry. Local bottlers Arca and Femsa import the original liquid from Coca-Cola, and then take care of the remaining work such as packaging and sales. Joan Platz of Coca-Cola Mexico said that 100,000 people were employed for bottling and distribution alone, and claimed that the company provided 1 million jobs and contributed 1.4% of GDP.

Coca-Cola can be bought in every village, but medicines are not. The current Mexican President Lopez Obrador often expresses disappointment. Vicente Fox, who became President of Mexico in 2000, was the boss of Coca-Cola Mexico in the 1970s. Fox mentioned in his memoirs that in his early years, he used Coca-Cola delivery trucks to shuttle back and forth across the country, “just like a US presidential candidate’s lecture tour from Iowa to New Hampshire.” The feelings of the two presidents are completely different.

Until the 1960s and 1970s, as the dangers of excessive sugar intake became widely known, Mexicans began to regard Coca-Cola as a foreign brand. A hanging bottle is feeding Coca-Cola into the vein of a hospitalized patient—this is the opening scene of the black-and-white film “Secret Recipe” filmed in 1965. Juan Rulfo wrote a poem specifically for this movie. To borrow his words, the “series of nightmares” related to his Mexican identity began with that scene.

Nowadays, out of concerns about public health, many people have joined the ranks of boycotting Coca-Cola. Former Mexican President Peña Nieto, who only drank Diet Coke, had imposed a carbonated drink tax of one peso (about eight cents) per liter in 2013. This seems to inhibit the growth of consumption. In October last year, President Obrador put a big black warning label on Coca-Cola and other recognized unhealthy foods. The southern state of Oaxaca has banned the sale of packaged junk food to minors. Other states have followed suit.

However, Coca-Cola has always been very adaptable. According to Fox, the Coca-Cola Company promised (but never fulfilled) in the 1970s to build a desalination plant to avoid nationalization. In 2018, it reduced 1/3 of the sugar from the original cola formula for Mexican consumers. And at a meeting with President Obrador last October, the company promised to buy more Mexican products for use as raw materials for other beverages, such as buying apple juice from Chihuahua instead of Chile, and for Mexican 1.2 million Coca-Cola salespeople who lost their jobs due to the spread of the new crown virus provided assistance. This typical American brand is determined to continue its status as the national drink of Mexico. Perhaps, with the help of politicians, it will allow Mexicans to consume Coke while paying less for their health.