food / travel

Weighing The Price Of Latin America's Soft Drink Epidemic

The sweet (and unhealthy) underbelly of the region's economic growth.

Jarritos, a popular brand of sodas in Mexico
Jarritos, a popular brand of sodas in Mexico
Hector Cancino Salas

BUENOS AIRES - Just as many Latin American countries are leading the world in economic growth, they are also leading in other, not so positive aspects, like soft drink consumption.

According to a study published by market research firm Euromonitor International, Argentina, Chile and Mexico are the top three consumers of sodas and soft drinks in the world, with Uruguay ranking seventh.

These figures show the huge impact the beverage industry has had on the Latin American continent, to the point where it has become entrenched in people’s everyday habits.

There are multiple reasons for this phenomenon. Jaime Gatica, general manager for the National Soft Drink Association of Chile (Anber), says “the last two years have been a positive period for the sale of beverages in Chile.” He believes that this is due in part to the “growing economy and low unemployment rate, two factors that have had an effect on the increase in soft drink consumption.”

Nevertheless, while some may be celebrating these statistics, others are highlighting their negative impact, and stressing that it is important to be attentive to the severe problems that come with high soda consumption. Primarily, the relationship that exists between the consumption of sugary drinks and obesity, and its direct link with the deterioration of individual health and the public costs that accompany it.

Sebastian Laspiur from Argentina’s health ministry says, “We have an extremely high consumption rate of soft drinks, which comes at a price. It has created an epidemic of rising childhood and adult obesity in Argentina.”

Given the situation, it seems urgent to ask ourselves about the actions governments are taking to remedy the situation. Jonas Feliciano from Euromonitor says “high sugar consumption and obesity are a concern throughout the world. Consumers have registered this concern by switching to "light" or calorie-free sodas.”

Argentina ranks top of the Euromonitor survey, with an average consumption of 131 liters of soft drinks per capita per year. There is a clear preference for colas, which represent 62.4% of total soft drink consumption, of which only 15.41% were “light” drinks.

Chile comes in second, with 121 liters annually, and only 9.64% of them low-calorie. These numbers inspired the creation and implementation of a new program, called Elige Vivir Sano (Choose to Live a Healthy Life”). The program’s director, Pauline Kantor, says there is a “high percentage of the Chilean population with weight and obesity problems, which causes more than 7,800 deaths a year.”

In Mexico, Coca Cola, which was first introduced in 1898, is now the most important beverage company in the country. Today 119 liters are consumed annually, only slightly lower than Chile. However, Mexico is the country that consumes the most cola drinks, which represent 66.36% of soft drinks.

Beating North America at its game

And this is how these three countries keep Latin America on the frontline of soft drink consumption. Incredibly, they all surpass the North-American average of 108.4 liters annually per person.

In the region, the country with the lowest consumption of sodas is Costa Rica, with 33.5 liters per capita, well below the Latin America average of 78.7 liters.

The rest of the countries in the region mentioned in the survey are: Brazil with 67.2 liters, Guatemala with 67.1, Dominican Republic 61.1, Venezuela 55.2 liters, Bolivia 53.4, Colombia 50.6, Peru 50.0 and Ecuador with 46.1 liters per person annually.

The country that deals with the health risks associated with soft drink consumption best is undoubtedly Chile, with its Elige Vivir Sano program, launched in 2011.

However, Kantor acknowledges that “there is no direct policy in regard to soda consumption, but rather a broad program, which targets salt, sugar and fat consumption.” The first objective of the program, she says, is to raise awareness.

In Argentina, the health ministry is also aware of this worrying trend, even though there is no entity or institution specifically in charge of addressing the issue. According to Laspiur, “the beverage industry’s marketing strategies, advertising and market positioning have transformed soft drinks from something that was reserved for celebrations and social events to something that is found every day on the tables of Argentine families.”

Feliciano concurs, saying that the increase in soda consumption will continue, because of “heavy marketing targeted at a wide range of consumers, making sure that soft drinks can be bought everywhere.”

Laspiur says the issue is on the agenda of the government, adding that despite disagreements and pressures – both from the corporate and political world – regulations in this regard are expected to be finalized soon. These regulations include limits on advertising, special taxes and reducing the size of portions.

In parallel, the industry seems be playing – albeit minimally – its part. Many companies have started offering drinks with less sugar and calories.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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