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Mexico City bets on tap water law to change habit

MEXICO CITY (AP) - "Drink the water."

It's a suggestion alien to Mexico City residents who have long shunned tap water in favor of the bottled kind and to the throngs of tourists who visit the city each year, bringing with them fears of "Montezuma's Revenge." But a law recently approved by Mexico City's legislators will require all restaurants to install filters so they can offer patrons free, drinkable water that won't lead to stomach problems and other ailments.

"We need to create a culture of water consumption," said Dr. Jose Armando Ahued, health secretary for Mexico City. "We need to accept our water."

Bad tap water accounts in part for Mexico being the world's top consumer of bottled water and - worse - soda, some 43 gallons per person a year.

With an obesity epidemic nationwide, the city's health department decided to back the water initiative.

Mexico City officials say 65,000 restaurants will have six months to install filters once the bill is signed later this month. Health inspectors will make periodic visits and impose $125 to $630 fines to those not complying. The law doesn't cover thousands of food stalls along Mexico City's streets.

Some restaurants already have filters. But when business consultant Jose Frank recently ate tacos with two colleagues at Yucatan Cravings in the Zona Rosa tourist district, they all had bottled water.

"I'm afraid to drink the water for everything they say. I don't feel secure. I prefer bottled," Frank said.

A general distrust of tap water is not without reason. The city's giant 1985 earthquake burst water pipelines and sewers, increasing waterborne diseases, and officials blamed water supply systems for a spread of cholera in the 1990s.

Tourists still dread getting diarrhea from the microbes in untreated water. It's a phenomenon so infamous, the bad water even starred in a "Sex and the City" movie, when Charlotte suffered the runny results of accidentally opening her mouth while showering in a Mexican resort.

Mexico City's health secretary said 95 percent of the capital's drinking water is clean, based on daily checks of chlorination at various treatment plants. But experts note that while Mexico City water leaves the plant in drinkable form, it travels through old underground pipes and dirty rooftop water tanks to the consumer.

Mexicans consume 69 gallons (260 liters) of bottled water per capita each year, mostly from 5-gallon (20-liter) jugs delivered by trucks to restaurants and homes. The number in the U.S. is 31 gallons (116 liters), according to Jose Martinez-Robles, of the New York City-based consultant Beverage Marketing Corp.

It's not cheap. The large jugs can cost more than $2 in a country where the minimum daily wage is $5. One-liter water bottles range from 50 cents to a dollar.

Giants such as French Danone, and Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are finding that bottled water is the fastest growing segment of their business.

Martinez-Robles estimates the bottled-water market in Mexico reached $5 billion in 2012, suggesting it will be hard to get Mexicans to change their habits and trust what comes out of their taps, even if it is filtered.

"It's a huge market," he said. "We don't trust our water distribution system. I'd say it's more of a cultural thing than hygiene."

High consumption of bottled water does not translate to healthier lifestyles, though. Seven out of 10 Mexicans are overweight and the country has surpassed the U.S. in obesity rates, according to a United Nations report, mostly due to a diet of fatty foods and sugary sodas.

Legislator Jorge Gavino thought requiring restaurants to offer free water from the tap would help Mexicans downsize while saving money.

The president of Mexico's restaurant chamber, Manuel Gutierrez, says making the ordinance punishable is a mistake.

"In almost every restaurant, if you ask for a glass of water or a pitcher, they'll give it to you. What we can't accept is that it should be an obligation, one that will draw sanctions, if you don't give it away for free," Gutierrez said. "The majority of the customers prefer bottled water. They will continue to be wary."

Luis Najar of Las Magaritas restaurant said installing an ultraviolet-light filter, visible to customers from behind the bar, has changed their drinking habits.

More people ask for pitchers of water.

"We put it out here so everyone can see it's filtered and pure," he said.

Join the discussion

1000|Char. 1000  Char.
rockytony January 24 2014 at 2:28 PM

I would trust Mexico's health procedures about as far as I can throw the Brooklyn Bridge.

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prnyl January 24 2014 at 2:01 PM

Filters do no good if they are cheap or not changed frequently enough which they will not be in Mexico so kep that immodium handy and always drink bottled anything in Mexico!

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stew491 January 24 2014 at 12:59 PM

What about Vegetables and such grown in Mexico. I have had the revenge after eating a salad.

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2 replies
bassidan stew491 January 24 2014 at 2:24 PM

I made the same mistake and paid for it for almost two weeks. They wash the salad in the contaminated water and then serve it with "bottled water".
Don't forget about that ice in your drink either. You know that wasn't made with bottled water.

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swoboda stew491 January 24 2014 at 2:49 PM

You're absolutely right. The food is far more likely to be the culprit than the water. It's not that the water can't make you sick but 80-90% of the diarrhea is typically caused by the contaminated food. Salads and salsa are heavily contaminated in general.

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Brian January 24 2014 at 2:52 PM

I wouldn't trust any new health reforms in Mexico - or ANYTHING in Mexico - if my life depended on it, after they arrested that poor tourist and claimed she somehow managed to smuggle about fifty pounds of marijuana in her pockets., with videotaped evidence and witnesses clearly showing she was innocent.

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fernerobin January 24 2014 at 3:33 PM

Mexico made a BIG choice many years at the height of the Mexican oil boom. The choice was between a national cleanup of the water and wastewater systems....OR a massive system of US style superhighways. Guess which they chose? These massive highways, many never completed and actually used by few besides truckers are now falling into disrepair while the water and sewer systems (despite oficial propaganda) are worse than ever! You don't get a second chance to make a good first decision!

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davefromfwb1 January 24 2014 at 12:32 PM

Unb elievable that a country as large as Mexico and as close to the United States can't have clean drinking water. If all our jobs headed to Mexico....why hasn't large corporations pushed for healthier regulations by the government? You'd think the corporations would contribute money to have a better environment down there. (I know, they don't contribute to anything but their bottom line!) I'm just dreaming.

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obamasam0r0nl January 24 2014 at 4:01 PM

OH YEAH ! you can bet that I'll trust the restaurant that the water is filtered !

Flag Reply +5 rate up
johncstinnett January 24 2014 at 5:52 PM

Kind of hard to do when most of your residents live in the U.S.

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1 reply
aaldrew johncstinnett January 25 2014 at 1:41 AM


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tremex62 January 24 2014 at 9:02 PM

it's not Montezuma's revenge its Moctezuma's

Flag Reply +1 rate up
1 reply
rafdelm001 tremex62 January 24 2014 at 11:52 PM

Don't know how it is said or spelled. I'd just say DIARRHEA !!!

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Little Savage January 24 2014 at 11:17 AM

I always figured that "Montezuma's Revenge" was fairly decent proof that humans evolve. The Mexican people evolved to handle a microbe that no other human body can tolerate. To an educated mind, it certainly is an interesting factoid.

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1 reply
leeniesteenies Little Savage January 24 2014 at 11:28 AM

I guess you haven't traveled to much in your life. That revenge can be found around the world. Actually caused by the guts flora ours here in the USA is different then others in different counties

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1 reply
Little Savage leeniesteenies January 24 2014 at 3:22 PM

And each of those cultures evolved a resistance that non natives do not have, thereby my point. Evolution in action. By the way, I had travelled more by the time I was 18 than most folks do their entire lives. That is what makes me more tolerant of different people than your typical American is.

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