SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
More than 66,000 people have died from COVID-19 in Mexico. Health officials there say that ailments like diabetes, hypertension and obesity make the virus especially deadly. Junk food and sugary drinks can dominate many Mexican diets. And as James Fredrick reports, the pandemic has led to a new urgency to try to change that.
JAMES FREDRICK, BYLINE: Picture this. You're 17. You walk into your local corner store - grab some Cheetos, maybe a Coke. But soon, in two Mexican states, here's the answer you'll get.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).
FREDRICK: "Sorry, I can't sell you that stuff without a parent" - just like alcohol and cigarettes. Under new laws in Oaxaca and Tabasco states, no one under 18 will be able to buy junk food or sugary drinks.
Lawmaker Magaly Lopez (ph) spearheaded the ban with a bill she got through the Oaxaca state congress. It's awaiting the governor's signature.
MAGALY LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
FREDRICK: She says, "I know it sounds drastic, but it was necessary to take action now. Oaxaca is Mexico's epicenter of childhood obesity, and Mexico ranks No. 1 for obesity in the world." At least a dozen other states have similar bans in the works. But there's pushback from people like Cuauhtemoc Rivera (ph), the president of a group that lobbies on behalf of small businesses.
CUAUHTEMOC RIVERA: (Speaking Spanish).
FREDRICK: He says, "Formal businesses will just move to street vendors who will sell this stuff to kids with little oversight." And, Rivera says, the pandemic has already crushed thousands of small businesses. Restrictions on chips and soda, shops' best-selling products, will be devastating. And not just for shop owners...
RIVERA: (Speaking Spanish).
FREDRICK: He acknowledges Mexicans lack the means to buy healthier food. So they fill their stomachs with cheap calories, things like potato chips, white breads and sugary drinks. That's one point where Rivera is in agreement with supporters of the new laws. Mexicans eat badly because they're short on money, time and healthy options. But that's not the whole picture says, Ana Larrañaga (ph), who lobbies for health-oriented public policy.
ANA LARRAÑAGA: For many years, the government allowed self-regulation from the industry or very weak nutritional standards.
FREDRICK: She notes that a former president, Vicente Fox, once served as CEO of Coca-Cola Mexico. Later, Coca-Cola tried to buy goodwill with a school fitness program now widely seen as a failure. Things began to change in 2014, when the government imposed the tax on sugary drinks. And last year, a new federal law passed.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (Speaking Spanish).
FREDRICK: Starting in October, giant-font warning labels will be slapped on the front of food packages, things like excess sodium, excess trans fats. The new law will also ban advertising unhealthy foods to children. The main Coca-Cola distributor here has filed a legal challenge.
I asked kids in Mexico City how they'd feel if their state also banned junk food sales to minors. Sixteen-year-old Wendy Treviño (ph) was surprisingly typical.
WENDY TREVIÑO: (Speaking Spanish).
FREDRICK: "Yeah, I'd be frustrated at first if I couldn't buy a Coke," she says. "But I'd adapt, and maybe I'd go for a piece of fruit instead."
I reached 17-year-old Daniela Santiago (ph) in Natividad, a small town in the highlands of Oaxaca, the state that first passed the ban.
DANIELA SANTIAGO: (Speaking Spanish).
FREDRICK: She explains how when new stores appeared in town selling processed foods, it was supposedly a sign of progress. But to counter the health impact, an NGO is now giving them nutrition courses. That's how Daniela learned about diabetes, hypertension and all the ailments associated with a poor diet.
DANIELA SANTIAGO: (Speaking Spanish).
FREDRICK: Now Daniela says she's happy to stick to the traditional meals her family prepares at home - what Oaxacans ate before junk food and sodas sparked the obesity epidemic that's now proving so deadly.
For NPR News, I'm James Fredrick in Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.