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The Average Mexican Now Drinks 371 Bottles of Soda a Year

Free trade is making other countries fat and sick.

by Pranav Reddy
Feb 14 2018, 6:00pm

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President Donald Trump is like a broken clock: He’s mostly wrong, but every so often, he's right. Even then, however, it’s often for the wrong reasons. This is true of his latest groaning about the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA.

As trade representatives from the United States, Mexico, and Canada have been renegotiating the deal, Trump has repeatedly disparaged it. “I see the carnage that NAFTA has caused; I see the carnage,” Trump has said. The carnage he sees, however, is the wrong kind: NAFTA hasn’t hurt US manufacturing, but it has made people sicker.

On the whole, NAFTA has been beneficial for the United States economically. It created a regional supply chain ensuring US competitiveness, quadrupled trade regionally, and lowered prices for American consumers. It’s true that NAFTA accounts for 15,000 jobs lost annually, but the biggest driver of job losses has actually been technology, which has increased manufacturing productivity but cost livelihoods. Losses are only half of the equation, though. NAFTA has also created gains: 188,000 US jobs each year are supported by sales to Mexico.

Across the border, NAFTA has had some economic benefits for Mexico as well. A four-fold increase in US foreign-direct investment has allowed Mexico to become a car manufacturing hub. Mexico is now the fifteenth largest economy in the world.

But NAFTA has had darker effects in Mexico, as well. Today, Mexico has the second-highest obesity rate in the world, second only to the United States. Seven out of ten Mexicans are overweight, and three out of ten are clinically obese. Accompanying the obesity epidemic has been the proliferation of other conditions that are devastating for health. Type 2 diabetes is now the top cause of death in Mexico, and the government spends billions of dollars tackling the disease and its complications alone. In a country with high rates of out-of-pocket healthcare costs, many go bankrupt trying to pay for care.


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The prime culprit driving these changes is a drastic change in the Mexican diet. Energy intake from fat in Mexico has gone up rapidly. In the decade after NAFTA’s passage, the proportion of calories that Mexicans got from carbonated beverages shot up forty percent. The average Mexican drinks an astounding 371 12-ounce servings of soda every year, the highest total in the world, according to market research firm Euromonitor.

What has led to this crisis, one that the Mexican government has called a national emergency? NAFTA opened the floodgates, allowing the US to export fast, high-calorie, low-nutrient processed foods. Trade liberalization has enabled transnational companies to flood the Mexican market, changing diet and health for the worse. Cheap food with high-fructose corn syrup in urban environments has become commonplace. Global food advertising has entered Mexico in force, saturating the airwaves. As a result, the fastest growing consumer market for soft drinks consists of young children and young adults.

NAFTA has fundamentally altered Mexico’s food and health systems, changing what foods are desirable and available. By opening the doors to foreign investment, the “McDonaldization” of the Mexican diet has reaped a terrible epidemic of obesity and undernutrition.

The result has been a crushing burden of chronic and non-communicable disease on Mexico’s health system. Since 1990, deaths in Mexico from causes like measles, diarrhea, and infant deaths have been dropping, while diet-related diseases like diabetes, ischemic heart disease, and stroke have rapidly increased. Today, diabetes and cardiovascular disease alone account for 36 percent of all deaths in Mexico.

There are enormous side effects of trade liberalization, which cause true social and economic disruption. NAFTA has caused this disruption in Mexico, Canada, and the United States. The diet-related health crisis from NAFTA in Mexico is only one example. For environmental concerns, trade agreements enable countries to mask pollutants from goods produced overseas. For access to medications, intellectual property provisions enable pharmaceutical companies to charge higher prices and prevent access. In labor, family farms have been decimated.

There are no doubts that NAFTA has had benefits economically, contributing to a more coherent regional economy and adding jobs. But ignoring the health effects of trade liberalization will come at our own peril. As negotiators from the United States, Canada, and Mexico descend on Montreal for the latest round of NAFTA discussions, attempting to make progress on the deal, their definition of a “good agreement” should include provisions to prevent crises of externalities from NAFTA.

On January 29, the sixth round of NAFTA talks closed. In updating the deal, they should have formal structures for monitoring, preventing, and acting when the side effects of trade liberalization begin to impact our bodies and make us sick. If they do not, these negative side effects will overshadow all the benefits of NAFTA—and that's the real carnage.

Pranav Reddy a dual degree candidate at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University and Harvard Kennedy School.

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