By Luc Cohen
MEXICO CITY, Aug 7 (Reuters) - Mexico's soda lobby fought back on Wednesday against those who blame carbonated drinks for the country's rising obesity rate, now higher than in the United States, pointing to lack of exercise and fried foods as the real culprits.
A United Nations report released last month put Mexico's obesity rate at 32.8 percent of adults, just above 31.8 percent in the United States, making Mexico the fattest country in the Western Hemisphere excluding Belize and some small Caribbean Islands.
At slightly more than 12 ounces per day, Mexican per capita carbonated drink consumption rates are among the world's highest. The country's advocacy groups have seized on this statistic to launch an anti-soda ad campaign in Mexico City subways.
But Mexico's association of soft drink producers ANPRAC on Wednesday refused to accept that high soda consumption rates are behind the obesity rise, calling the ad campaign "misinformation."
The group acknowledged the public health threat caused by obesity. But it blamed it on the lack of exercise and love of fried foods in Latin America's No. 2 economy and promised to help combat them.
"We have a responsibility to motivate people to change their behavior towards healthier lifestyles," said Emilio Herrera, the group's director. "That's what's going to help us to confront this public health problem."
The soda lobby began airing an advertisement on Tuesday encouraging healthier lifestyles, with images of people jogging and eating salads.
On its website, the group claims that soft drinks "form part of the Mexican diet."
But international health experts, including Kelly Brownell, dean of Duke University's public policy school and an obesity specialist, are skeptical of ANPRAC's arguments.
"The strongest scientific link between any category of food and obesity is with sugared beverages," Brownell said. "If you're going to address obesity, you need to begin somewhere, and why not begin where the science is strongest?"
In a June speech, World Health Organization director Margaret Chan criticized efforts by "Big Soda" to fight potential regulations by blaming obesity on poor individual decision-making.
"This is not a failure of individual will-power," Chan said. "This is a failure of political will to take on big business."
Obesity puts people at greater risk of developing diabetes, which afflicts 10.6 million Mexicans, according to Danish pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk, a leading supplier of insulin to Mexico.
Mexico's soft drink lobby includes the local bottlers of both the Coca Cola Co and Pepsico Inc.