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Mexico’s trim president urges his people to eat less, exercise more

President Enrique Pena Nieto on Thursday urged Mexicans to lose weight and exercise for up to an hour per day, even if it’s just walking or climbing stairs.

Mexicans face “an authentic epidemic of excess weight and obesity,” he said, noting that one schoolchild out of every three is overweight.

“We cannot just cross our arms. Millions of Mexican lives are at risk,” said Pena Nieto, who is trim at age 47 and keeps a hectic schedule. “It’s time to change individual and collective habits.”

His salvo against soaring diabetes and the expanding waistline of his countrymen came as the two chambers of Mexico’s Congress move toward imposing taxes on junk food and sweetened beverages.

The proposed taxes have set off a frenetic campaign of full-page newspaper advertisements between soft drink bottlers and small retailers on one hand and health advocates on the other.

The health advocates have a champion in billionaire New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, has provided $10 million in support. Bloomberg, who has sought and failed to curb soda drinking and reduce caloric intake in his city, on Thursday tweeted his support for Pena Nieto “for taking action to protect public health and combat obesity.”

In announcing a “national strategy” to combat excess weight and diabetes, Pena Nieto said poor dietary and exercise habits have taken a national toll.

Seven of every 10 Mexicans suffer from excess weight, he said, and diabetes is a factor in one in five deaths.

“Excess weight, obesity and diabetes are new threats to the health of Mexicans, and we must confront them firmly,” he said.

Pena Nieto urged Mexicans to engage in an hour per day of physical activity “that may not require great effort but that will break sedentary habits.”

The U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization reported in June that Mexico’s obesity rate had surpassed that of the United States, making it the fattest populous nation in the world. About 71 percent of Mexican adults are deemed to be overweight.

Diabetes is Mexico’s No. 1 killer, taking some 70,000 lives a year, far more than gangster violence, and as many as 10 million Mexicans now have diabetes.

As part of a vast fiscal reform proposed by Pena Nieto, Mexico’s Senate voted 72-2 Wednesday to impose a special 8 percent tax on foods with at least 275 calories per 100 grams, such as snacks, chips and ice cream. Since the proposed tax is higher than a 5 percent levy sought by the Lower House, the measure went back to the Chamber of Deputies for reconsideration.

The Senate is also considering a tax of two pesos per liter (about 15 U.S. cents) on sweetened beverages, sports drinks and colas. The Lower House already approved that proposal.

“I fully trust that the (food and beverage) sector will assume . . . a positive attitude to improve the wellbeing of Mexicans,” Pena Nieto said, urging them to fall in line behind the proposed taxes.

That is unlikely. A powerful coalition of sugar cane growers, mills, soft drink bottlers and small retailers denied Thursday that their products caused obesity.

“Obesity is fought with education that promotes healthy lifestyles and changes in habit, not by taxes,” the coalition said in a statement sent to McClatchy.

Sweetened beverages comprise 25 percent to 30 percent of sales of small corner retailers, and higher taxes could hurt hundreds of thousands of storeowners, it added.