I have spent the last 2.5 months living in Mexico: falling in love with the warmth of the people, the communities that take over street corners, the colours of the windowsills and street cacti, the energy of the markets, and of course, the food. As I’ve made friends, wandered the streets, and observed a new set of geo-targeted ads on my social feed, I’ve gained some insight into Mexican life—particularly nuanced in light of the upcoming Presidential Election on July 1.
Donning my new global health and NCD hat, and with the guidance of the wonderful team at Salud Critica Mexico (Critical Health) and the Mexico Salud-Hable (Health-Talk) Coalition, I’ve learned that this is an extremely important time to influence the political agenda—particularly with regard to addressing the risk factors that lead to the development of NCDs and are responsible for 7 out of 10 deaths in Mexico. Mexico is the only country in which health authorities have declared an Epidemiological Emergency Alert for three non-communicable diseases: overweight, obesity and Type 2 diabetes. For this country of 127.5 million people, putting NCDs on the political agenda could help reduce millions of unnecessary deaths, as well as associated emotional and economic suffering.
In the lead-up to the election, the Mexico Salud-Hable (Health-Talk) Coalition is doing a fine job of presenting evidence-based solutions to address the main risk factors for NCDs. In true advocacy style, they keep presidential candidates and party leaders accountable by monitoring and following up on their health declarations and proposals on this brilliant site.
According to the Mexico Salud-Hable Coalition, of the 163,328,196 million pesos (US$8 billion) spent on presidential campaigns, none of the presidential candidates have declared any strategy to guarantee true health protection and effective prevention of the main risk factors for NCDs: tobacco, alcohol, sedentary lifestyle and unhealthy diet.
The effects of this lack of strategy are compounded by social, cultural and environmental determinants that are part of Mexicans’ everyday lives. The street food so embedded in the culture, for example, is carb-heavy, while the stacks and stacks of (unbelievably cheap) sugary drinks can feel more common than water.
Mexicans report a number of barriers to physical activity, including lack of time, lack of adequate and safe spaces to exercise, and pre-existing health problems. Elementary and middle school students, meanwhile, have just one hour of physical education each week.
Tobacco and alcohol use also place a major weight on the health system and economy. Consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke causes 66,000 deaths per year, costing the Mexican health sector more than 75 billion pesos. It is also estimated that on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, around 200,000 drivers take to the roads under the influence of alcohol, accounting for approximately 24,000 deaths in car crashes each year.
To mitigate these risk factors and reduce NCD-related illness and deaths, our friends at the Mexico Salud-Hable Coalition have suggested some key changes they’d like to see:
- To fight childhood obesity: Front of package warning labeling on unhealthy food and beverages and strong regulation of junk food advertising aimed at children in all media, as well as surveillance and compliance with the regulation of products that are sold inside the schools.
- Physical activity: Prioritization of a model of walkable and safe cities and communities that propitiate the practice of active and healthy lifestyles, in addition to reducing deaths and injuries caused by traffic accidents and could help the country set an example in removing risk factors and fighting the effects of NCDs.
- Alcohol consumption: A national program to prevent abuse in the alcohol consumption and its consequences, in men and women of any age and social status.
- Tobacco control: Complete and firm application of the Framework Convention forTobacco Control (FCTC-WHO) with citizen oversight.
- Conflict of interest regulations: The implementation, monitoring and evaluation of health policies for the population, and not the defense of commercial interests. All multisectoral measures of public health should have clear guidelines to avoid conflicts of interest.
It’s easy for the fight against NCDs to fall down the list of political priorities when more urgent problems like high poverty and crime rates appear to be at hand. But with so many lives—and so much money—being lost to NCD-related causes, it is clear that urgent government action is necessary to encourage healthier options and choices for Mexicans. A set of clear policy directives from the next president could be a game-changer for Mexico’s health system.