Feature

Straight Up

How Johnnie Walker conquered the world.

Mexico is rising. You can see it in the country's swelling exports, the net-zero migration to the United States, the excitement of international bond investors, a recent credit upgrade from Standard & Poor's, a newly confident middle class, and a per capita GDP that has doubled since 2000. Not to mention a young, dynamic, handsome new president. In case you missed all these signs, though, you can also see Mexico's surge forward in a Scotch whisky ad.

The television spot says nothing about the product but everything about the country's long march from poverty toward prosperity. In the advertisement, thousands of Mexicans, men and women, young and old, are bound by chains to a massive boulder. They trudge forward up a dusty mountain, faces contorted and blackened, eyes downcast. The boulder pulls them back. A buzzard circles above. They push forward again, straining and wincing, and then -- with a crunch -- the boulder slides back downhill, throwing them to the ground.

But not so fast. One by one, they stand up and unchain themselves. Unburdened, they walk with gritted smiles and purpose up the dusty talus slope, leaving the boulder behind. Cue the soaring music. Cue the blue-sky vistas. Cue the tag line: "Keep Walking Mexico."

It's a brilliant ad, and you'd be forgiven for not immediately realizing it's for Scottish booze. (Frankly, the Sisyphean strivers look like they'd prefer water.) The only hint is the familiar Johnnie Walker logo, the stylized "Striding Man," accompanying the tag line. The metaphor of national achievement is clear, but the ad doesn't just tell the story of Mexico today. It also highlights Johnnie Walker's aggressive push into emerging markets and the rush by multinational consumer-products companies to catch the middle-class tsunami that is transforming the world.

The Brookings Institution's Homi Kharas estimates that the global middle class will hit 4.9 billion people by 2030, growing by 3 billion from today -- and they'll spend $56 trillion a year, up from $21 trillion today. Virtually all that growth will come from emerging economies. That's a lot of people walking upward -- and a lot of potential Johnnie Walker drinkers.

That's why executives from Starbucks to McDonald's to Coca-Cola see their future in the global middle class, and that's why Johnnie Walker's parent company, the booze behemoth Diageo, is pushing into liquor stores from Chile to China. Paul Walsh, a Diageo board member and former CEO, said in a statement about 2012 business results that the firm's "expanding reach to emerging middle class consumers in faster growing markets was the key driver of our volume growth." And Johnnie Walker, the world's No. 1-selling Scotch whisky, has been a crucial part of that growth. Today, four bottles of Johnnie Walker are consumed every second, with some 120 million bottles sold annually in 200 countries. Five of Johnnie Walker's top seven global markets are in the emerging world: Brazil, Mexico, Thailand, China, and a region the company calls "Global Travel Asia and Middle East."

From a small town in the Scottish Lowlands, the Striding Man has come a long way -- and he's still walking.

ASK ANYONE who travels in emerging markets or developing economies, and chances are they've been offered Johnnie Walker. These are just some of the places I've seen it poured: at a Beijing gathering of techies, a four-day wedding in Jaipur, countless bars in Dubai, a Nile cruise in Egypt, the home of an Arab diplomat in Bangkok, private homes in Tehran, a middle-class Istanbul house, and diplomatic parties in Riyadh.

Journalists who spent time in Baghdad during the Iraq war marveled at the easy availability of Johnnie Walker Black Label, even when food staples were scarce. The late writer Christopher Hitchens -- who fondly referred to the drink as "Mr. Walker's amber restorative" -- accurately noted that Black Label was "the favorite drink of the Iraqi Baath Party." In Saddam Hussein's era, a smuggler could make a good living taking crates across the border for thirsty Iranians. On a trip from Tehran to Iran's Kurdish regions on the Iran-Iraq border in the late 1990s, I stopped at the small city of Mahabad. A local smuggler peered into the car window, saw a group of city slickers from the capital, and asked simply in his Persian accent: "Johnnie Valker?" He, of course, offered us "very good price, my friend."

It's uncanny, the ubiquity of the striding Scot and his blended whisky (no "e" for the Scottish kind). It's everywhere, particularly among the upper end of the middle classes that the world's corporations are chasing. In Thailand, businessmen place a bottle of Black Label on the table before a closing negotiation. In Japan, bottles have become an essential part of the ritualized gift-giving culture. In India, one of Bollywood's most famous comedians even took the name Johnny Walker. It's such a status symbol in Asia that Johnnie Walker knockoffs aren't hard to find. You probably wouldn't want to serve guests the counterfeit liquor, but the bottle looks good on the mantle.

And in Africa, the newest gold mine of emerging markets, Diageo is cultivating a fresh generation of whisky drinkers. In downtown Nairobi, a 20-story billboard of the Striding Man towers alongside a skyscraper. African musicians and athletes have been named "brand ambassadors," and premium magazines are running a series of print ads that say simply: "Step Up." As in, step up to a better life, step up to the middle class, step up from that stale beer to a higher state of being: Become a whisky drinker. The print advertisement hawks Red Label, the brand's cheapest distillation (a favorite of Winston Churchill, with soda) and the presumptive first step in Johnnie Walker's color-coded upward journey through Black, Green, and Gold labels toward that nirvana of prestige: Blue Label.

The campaign seems to be working. Johnnie Walker sales are up 38 percent in East Africa and 33 percent in South Africa, and Diageo is doubling down, investing $368 million to expand operations in Nigeria, Africa's biggest market.

It's a classic strategy: reach the growing middle classes by selling them not just a product, but a lifestyle, an aspiration. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz often talks about selling an experience; coffee is an afterthought. The message from Diageo is similar: Keep Walking, you emerging middle classes; keep rising, and oh, by the way, treat yourself to a little Johnnie Walker while you're at it.

SO HOW did a little whisky company from a little country become the global brand of upward mobility? Or, to repurpose a question once posed by Scottish judge Lord Cockburn, no fan of his countrymen's favored drink: "Whisky no doubt is a devil; but why has this devil so many worshippers?"

In 1819, a young John Walker, the son of a local farmer, opened a small general store on King Street in Kilmarnock, a town in Ayrshire, Scotland. A general grocer, Walker also sold wines and spirits, including his own blended whiskies. The author Robert Bruce Lockhart noted that Walker's "capital was tiny and his business small and purely local," but he "had his full share of Ayrshire grit and thrift." For the first 30 years, his business was steady but unremarkable and "gave no indication of the fortune that was to come," Lockhart wrote in his 1951 book Scotch: The Whisky of Scotland in Fact and Story. In 1852, a devastating flood nearly ruined Walker. He lost everything and had no insurance.

But that "Ayrshire grit and thrift" kicked in, and he methodically rebuilt his business, gradually bringing his son, Alexander, into the trade. This would prove to be a turning point. Although the bottle carries his father's name, Alexander Walker -- whom Lockhart described as "a man of immense energy, vision, and ability" -- took the elixir global. When he joined the business, whisky produced only a fraction of the company's revenue. By the time Alexander died four decades later, handing Walker's Old Highland Whisky to his two sons, it was one of the world's largest purveyors of Scotch whisky, and a global brand was born: Johnnie Walker.

Alexander Walker actively engaged in the Adventure Merchant Business, a guild of sorts that tied together Scottish manufacturers and shipowners -- all of whom benefited from their membership in an empire on which the sun never set. The terms of the company's arrangement were fairly simple: The shippers would take goods with them on their journeys around the world, sell them, take a commission, and remit the remaining profits to the firms. Walker's whisky thus bobbed along the  British Empire's trading routes for decades.

But Walker understood that to truly make his mark, he needed to conquer a market much closer to home: London. In 1880, he opened offices in the city and became his company's first brand ambassador. As Lockhart noted, "he understood the art of personal advertisement," riding around town on a specially built open carriage known as a phaeton, a mode of transport favored by royals and the superrich. Drawn by "two superb ponies," the conveyance "attracted the desired attention and increased the still-more-desired sales."

Walker is also credited with the unique square-shaped bottle and its distinctive sticker, angled at precisely 24 degrees. The square shape allowed more bottles to fit on a shelf, and the logo's angle helped catch the eye. (Later, in Prohibition-era America, the square-shaped bottle proved ideal for smuggling: It fit perfectly inside a hollowed-out loaf of bread.) Walker died in 1889, but the steady hands of two Walker kinsmen and a young Ayrshire native of great ability, James Stevenson, guided his growing enterprise over the next half-century.

In 1908, the owners reached out to a leading artist of the era, Tom Browne, to help them design a poster. Over lunch, with just a few sharp strokes of his pen, Browne sketched what would become one of the world's most recognizable advertising icons. "The Striding Man was critical," whiskey historian Kevin Kosar told me, because it differentiated Walker from other scotch purveyors, which tended to play on Scotland's traditions of bearded men in kilts playing bagpipes, an image that lacked universality. "The Striding Man looked English, not Scottish. He carries a monocle, so he is literate. He carries a walking stick and wears a top hat. He is a dandy," Kosar explains. No rough Scot blowing funereal horns; here was a gentleman on the move.

By the early 20th century, the firm had it all: a growing business, a winning icon, new markets. Then came World War I, and business slowed worldwide. By 1925, John Walker & Sons found itself forced to enter a whisky cartel known as the Distillers Company. "After the war, there was a strong incentive for the big companies to lean on each other for strength," says Kosar. "Grain had been requisitioned, markets shut down. It seemed like a good idea to partner up to weather the storm."

World War II brought another storm, but its aftermath produced a historic march of growth in the West and rising fortunes elsewhere. Johnnie Walker made a big push into the U.S. market, advertising in gentlemen's magazines and targeting the successful, aspirational male. But the company also went after newly opened overseas markets. Japan, where men soon developed a copious thirst for Black Label, proved to be an early post-World War II success. Back in the States, Johnnie Walker started appearing on the silver screen in movies from Blade Runner to Raiders of the Lost Ark, making it not just a drink but a cultural icon.

In 1986, the Distillers Company was bought by the Irish brewery Guinness, which merged 11 years later with Grand Metropolitan to create Diageo. Listed on the London and New York stock exchanges, Diageo is now the world's largest spirits group by revenue, with bold-faced brands including not just Johnnie Walker but Smirnoff vodka, Captain Morgan rum, and Tanqueray gin. Diageo is an alcohol colossus that already generates nearly 40 percent of its sales from emerging markets, and that fraction is set to rise to 50 percent by 2015.

TODAY, DIAGEO is walking toward India and the acquisition of United Spirits, the country's largest alcoholic drinks firm, with 60 percent of the market. In July, it acquired a 25 percent stake in the company, and it aims to own more than half. Indians consume more whiskey than any other country in the world, and the distribution network Diageo would get with the purchase of United Spirits is akin to a raw materials producer gaining access to internal rail networks or shipping ports. Diageo has also acquired Brazil's Ypioca, the third-largest producer of cachaca, the popular sugar-cane-based spirit that adds the kick to caipirinhas from Sao Paulo to San Diego. It also recently had its eyes on Mexico's Jose Cuervo, the world's top-selling tequila-maker.

China is the big prize, though. There alone the middle class has grown to some 350 million people. According to consulting firm Ernst & Young, by 2030 China could see 1 billion people in the middle class -- some 70 percent of its projected population. And they'll be toasting to their success: The market research company Euromonitor International predicts that China alone will contribute 50 percent of the volume growth of the spirits industry in coming years. China is already the world's largest spirits market, followed by Russia and then India, though the South Asian giant will move into the second spot this year, according to industry estimates.

But will Chinese start quaffing scotch? On a per capita basis, whiskey consumption is still relatively low, with baijiu, a heady clear-colored liquor distilled from sorghum, still the preferred blend. But Johnnie Walker is striding ahead. In 2011, Diageo acquired a controlling stake in Sichuan-based Shui Jing Fang, a maker of baijiu, and the company has actively been courting young, urban professional Chinese -- "chuppies" -- with the familiar "Keep Walking" ad campaign. Since 2011, two "Johnnie Walker Houses" have opened, in Shanghai and Beijing, offering tours that mix a dab of Scottish heritage, a dash of whisky education, and a jigger of clubby exclusivity. On sale, of course, is the full array of Johnnie Walker blends, including exclusive limited-run editions of the super-high-end King George V Blue Label, which can run north of $600 per bottle.

Admittedly, Johnnie Walker and Diageo have made a few mistakes as well. A recent ad campaign for Blue Label, featuring a computer-generated Bruce Lee spouting inanities about the good life in a Hong Kong penthouse, drew ire from devoted fans of the martial artist, who was a teetotaler. The company's big investment in Turkey in 2011 -- the $2.1 billion purchase of Mey Icki, a major raki distiller -- came as the Turkish economy started to cool and the government clamped down on alcohol ads. What's more, the World Health Organization is issuing warnings about rising alcoholism in Africa -- Diageo's next big growth market.

Meanwhile, some scotch devotees argue that Johnnie Walker has forgotten its roots. Clearly, it's not soaked in nostalgia for ye olde Scotland. Today, Johnnie Walker is part of a massive conglomerate that has more than 25,000 employees and production centers in Australia, Cameroon, Canada, Ghana, Ireland, Jamaica, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, the United States, and the United Kingdom (including Scotland). In late 2012, Diageo bulldozed the last production plant in Kilmarnock, the birthplace of Walker's Old Highland Whisky.

As Kosar and I spoke about the future of Johnnie Walker, he sent me two images. The first was the original Striding Man design, Tom Browne's big advertising hit. The second was today's logo. I saw the difference right away: The Striding Man has had a face-lift, literally. His face no longer exists. He has become a silhouette, a colorless everyman. He could be anyone -- and you could be him.

Bloomberg via Getty Images

Feature

Make Them Eat Cake

How America is exporting its obesity epidemic.

With this summer's news from the United Nations that Mexico has surpassed the United States in adult obesity levels -- one-third of Mexican adults are now considered extremely overweight -- U.S. foreign policy has come into sharper, or perhaps softer, focus. Despite first lady Michelle Obama's continued emphasis on good diet and exercise, the United States seems secretly intent on fattening everyone else on the planet. Apparently, America has adopted the old piece of ursine humor as grand strategy: "You don't have to run faster than the bear to get away. You just have to run faster than the guy next to you."

At first blush, it might seem unfair to blame the United States for the stoutness south of its border. Surely, Mexicans (like Americans) are getting fatter because they are eating more, exercising less, and spending too much time watching television. When one digs beneath the surface, however, it quickly becomes apparent that a complex web of American agricultural, trade, marketing, and scientific practices together are helping drive a "globesity" epidemic. Many of these policies were designed to give U.S. firms a leg up in international markets, but the domestic economic benefits of this culinary oligarchy are increasingly being outweighed -- literally and figuratively -- by the toll on international health, particularly among the poor. The American taxpayer is directly underwriting a food-production system in which nutrition has become a distant afterthought.

Perhaps America is ultimately guilty of nothing worse than trying to remake the world in its own hefty image -- a case of soft-power influence gone horribly literal. As the global costs of obesity continue to spiral, however, it is time to rethink the changes that the United States has brought to the table.

IT IS NO ACCIDENT that Mexico's weight gain has coincided with increased soft-drink guzzling. The country's national statistics agency estimates that Mexicans drink 43 gallons per capita annually, giving the country the world's highest rate of soda consumption. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a Minnesota-based think tank, has shown that the country's sharp spike in obesity and soda consumption correlates with the 1994 passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which opened Mexico to a flood of cheap junk food and soda pop: After the agreement took effect, there was a more than 1,200 percent increase in high-fructose corn syrup exports from the United States to Mexico between 1996 and 2012, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. (At one point, the Mexican government began taxing drinks sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup, but the fierce objections of U.S. corn refiners prompted Washington to complain to the World Trade Organization and the tax was eventually struck down.)

In many ways, Mexico's diet is being devastated by America's perverse economic incentives. The United States has long imposed relatively high tariffs on sugar imports and granted large subsidies for domestic crops such as corn and soybeans. In the 1970s, however, when sugar tariffs rose even further and technological advances from Japan helped perfect high-fructose corn syrup production, agribusinesses' use of the sweetener exploded. Suddenly, it was cheaper to put high-fructose corn syrup in everything from spaghetti sauce to soda. Coke and Pepsi swapped out sugar for high-fructose corn syrup in 1984, and most other U.S. soda and snack companies followed suit. U.S. per capita consumption of high-fructose corn syrup spiked from less than half a pound a year in 1970 to a peak of almost 38 pounds a year in 1999. As it did, American obesity spiked as well.

The problem was not just that shoppers were more willing to buy (and consume) a cheaper product, but also that high-fructose corn syrup actually seems to be less healthy than natural sugar. Despite a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign backed by corn producers, with gauzy pictures of mothers assuring us that "high-fructose corn syrup is simply a form of sugar made from corn," there do seem to be important differences. Yale University researchers released a study this past January suggesting that fructose simply does not trigger the same sense of being satiated as glucose does. This builds on 2010 research from Princeton University scientists who found that rats ingesting high-fructose corn syrup gained significantly more weight than those eating sugar, in addition to experiencing abnormal increases in body fat. Research released this year from Canada's University of Guelph found that a high-fructose corn syrup diet in rats produced addictive behavior similar to that from cocaine use.

I'll admit that an evil American plan to fatten the world sounds like an outlandish conspiracy theory. But consider the sad saga of Samoa and the American turkey tail. Turkey tails, which can be some 40 percent fat, were long a largely unwanted byproduct of the U.S. poultry industry. James Sumner, president of the USA Poultry & Egg Export Council, acknowledged this year that turkey tails would likely only be used for pet food in the United States. But after World War II, clever marketers began dumping them on Samoa, which enjoyed strong economic ties with the United States -- and the tails became an unlikely local delicacy in the Pacific island nation. (Neighboring islands with closer ties to New Zealand have been flooded with a similarly unhealthy fatty food byproduct: mutton flaps.) By 2007, Samoans were each consuming more than 44 pounds of turkey tails every year. Unsurprisingly, Samoan obesity rates skyrocketed from the 1960s onward -- reaching 56 percent by 2008 -- as the turkey butts and other imported foods squeezed out seafood, a much leaner option, in the local diet. A 2005 study concluded that the "acceptance and/or belief that foreign goods and services are superior" led many Pacific islanders to consume foods of low nutritional quality, which directly correlated with adverse health outcomes. Nine of the world's 10 most obese countries and territories are in Oceania, according to the CIA's World Factbook.

When desperate Samoan officials, facing a mounting public health crisis, banned turkey-tail imports in 2007, U.S. agricultural producers said, "Not so fast." Even as Samoan officials pleaded with the World Health Organization (WHO) for help in combating American poultry companies' food-marketing strategies on the island, the World Trade Organization (WTO) blocked Samoa's application for membership. The turkey-rump dispute bogged down Samoa's WTO bid for years, until it agreed in 2011 to open itself back up to turkey-tail imports. Sumner insisted at the time, "We feel it's the consumers' right to determine what foods they wish to consume, not the government's." The Samoans were rolled into accepting a compromise whereby they can maintain steep tariffs on turkey tails until 2016, when they hope to have better public health education in place.

Meanwhile, nothing has been more American in recent years than exporting fast-food chains. McDonald's boasts that it now has restaurants in 118 countries. KFC is second only to the Golden Arches in global fast-food market share. The fried-chicken chain's parent company, Yum! Brands, which also owns Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, saw $13.6 billion in revenue last year alone and is focusing some 86 percent of its restaurant development in emerging economies.

The results are as depressing as you might expect. A University of Minnesota study published last year found that those flocking to Western-style fast-food chains in Singapore were younger and better educated, exercised more, and smoked less -- all factors normally associated with lower risk of heart disease. Yet those Singaporeans eating fast food once a week had a 20 percent higher likelihood of dying from coronary heart disease than those eschewing fast food; people eating fast food two or three times a week had a 50 percent higher likelihood; and those wealthy, educated patrons downing fast food four or more times a week were nearly 80 percent more likely to die from heart disease. "The big picture," one of the study's authors said, "is that this [fast food] aspect of globalization and exportation of U.S. and Western culture might not be the best thing to spread to cultures around the world."

WHY IS THE UNITED STATES determined to export fat? In part because button-popping sums of money are at stake. The market research firm Euromonitor International notes that the global sale of packaged foods (everything from potato chips to cereal to pre-prepared meals like Lunchables) has jumped more than 90 percent over the last decade, with 2012 sales topping $2.2 trillion. PepsiCo alone sells more than $10 billion in potato chips annually. Kraft Foods' global snack-food spinoff, Mondelez International -- meaning "world delicious," in a blend of Romance languages and corporatespeak -- operates in 165 countries and is ramping up investments in the developing world, which already accounts for more than 40 percent of its $35 billion in annual net revenues. Coca-Cola and PepsiCo together control almost 40 percent of the world's $532 billion soft drink market, according to the Economist. Soda sales, meanwhile, have more than doubled in the last 10 years, with much of that growth driven by developing markets. McDonald's investors were disappointed that the company only turned $1.4 billion in profit during the second quarter of 2013, having become used to years of double-digit gains every three months.

But the focus on promoting unhealthy lifestyles abroad has also increased, ironically, because the United States has succeeded in promoting healthier ones at home. Americans are eating less fast food and ingesting fewer calories than they did a decade ago -- a trend that should begin to lower U.S. obesity rates, which have largely plateaued. San Francisco actually tried to ban McDonald's Happy Meals because they target kids with fat and sugar, and this summer Taco Bell announced it is dropping food-toy combos for children altogether. As eating patterns have changed, the food industry has looked to new markets.

Take high-fructose corn syrup. U.S. consumption, at around 27 pounds per capita last year, has declined in large part due to mounting concerns that it is an important driver in the obesity epidemic. So American corn producers have looked to export markets to pick up the slack. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2012 the United States exported 1.47 million metric tons of fructose, a 1,450 percent increase from 1995.

This shift abroad mirrors the strategy of the tobacco industry as anti-smoking efforts and cigarette taxes have pushed the U.S. smoking rate down steadily over the past half-century, from 42 to 18 percent. Economists have estimated that every 10 percent rise in the price of a pack of cigarettes reduces cigarette consumption in the United States by as much as 5 percent, helping explain why American tobacco companies are looking more to China and other less regulated and taxed markets for future growth. It does not seem coincidental that America's twin behemoth tobacco companies, R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris, moved into the food business -- buying up or merging with snack companies including General Foods, Kraft, and Nabisco in the 1980s -- to diversify their portfolios as domestic tobacco sales came under mounting pressure.

The big players in the U.S. food industry have certainly acted like the tobacco pushers as they have deployed an incredible array of scientific and marketing research designed to get people to eat more, often at the obvious expense of their health. In his book, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, journalist Michael Moss offers a damning portrait of food companies that have entire research wings dedicated to creating the ideal "bliss point" so that brain receptors crave a food without ever triggering a sense of being satiated. More often than not, adding sweetness has been the easiest way to fool the brain, resulting in products like Yoplait yogurt, which tries to project a healthy image but, as Moss notes, has twice as much real sugar per serving as Lucky Charms cereal -- the poster child for an unhealthy breakfast when I was growing up.

Taking another page from Big Tobacco's playbook, whenever food companies and high-fructose corn syrup manufacturers talk about obesity, they rely heavily on language stressing "personal responsibility." They argue that kids around the globe just aren't exercising as much anymore and that consumers have every right to eat whatever they want to, using obvious truths to gloss over the fact that they are ruthlessly maximizing science and marketing to get people to embrace unhealthy lifestyles. As the Center for Consumer Freedom exclaims, "Eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of physical activity is crucial. Unfortunately, Americans have been force-fed a diet of bloated statistics hyping the problem of obesity." (The executive director of the Center for Consumer Freedom also happens to run a Beltway PR firm that specializes in defending corporate interests, and he has acknowledged that the center has received significant funding from food and restaurant companies.)

American consumers are wising up a bit -- in 2009, Kellogg was forced to drop its claim that Frosted Mini-Wheats were "clinically shown to improve kids' attentiveness by nearly 20 percent" after a public outcry -- but the costs of global obesity are enormous and rising sharply. According to the WHO, many low- and middle-income countries are, ironically, facing the twin problems of obesity and undernutrition. More than 30 million overweight children now live in the developing world, and many of them -- in a cruel trick of human biology -- are more prone to obesity because they were undernourished in the womb and as infants. A 2012 study by University of Southern California and Oxford University researchers found that the prevalence of Type 2 diabetes is 20 percent higher in countries with larger availability of high-fructose corn syrup than in countries where its use is comparatively low, and the study's lead author, Michael Goran, argued that the sweetener "appears to pose a serious public health problem on a global scale." Cardiovascular disease is already the No. 1 global killer, and the WHO notes that more than 80 percent of cardiovascular deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries because those countries are exposed to more risk factors, including unhealthy diet.

Samoan government officials have plans to implement a public health campaign to talk people out of eating turkey tails, but the health minister will be competing with the marketing divisions of major American poultry companies. Mexico's Education Ministry is trying to get schoolchildren to drink fewer soft drinks, but it is fighting an uphill battle against the marketing arms of major American cola companies that have spent years perfecting drinks that are cheap and designed to leave you wanting more. The African Union holds an Africa Food and Nutrition Security Day, but what is it to do when local McDonald's franchises push kids to join the Happy Meal Club and receive "loads of great offers, promotions & competitions every month"?

The United States, meanwhile, seems to be doubling down on the export of fat and fructose. The farm bill that passed the House of Representatives in July not only stripped out food stamps but also made a number of key agricultural subsidies -- including for corn, soybeans, and peanuts -- self-renewing in perpetuity. Legislation like this, mixed with relentless corporate marketing, means the rest of the world is likely to keep getting heavier -- and it's clear whose hand is feeding them.

Frank Ordonez/Charlotte Observer/MCT via Getty Images

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