Mexico’s soda tax doesn’t show the way…

As MPs and policy makers chew over the Health Select Committee report that today makes nine cross-spectrum recommendations to tackle obesity, 2020health’s 2014 report, ‘Careless Eating Costs Lives,’ considered the implications of food taxation on obesity.  Our findings from this report show that the taxation of a single foodstuff is in danger of sending the message that

  • it’s all we have to do,
  • that there is an evidence base or
  • that the tax would be passed on by industry to consumers[1] and therefore an effective measure.

Mexico is being held up as an exemplar, however the cultural background bears no comparison.

Mexico implemented a national strategy for the prevention of overweight and obesity and part of that was introducing a tax of one peso per litre on soft drinks on Jan 1st 2014. Sales dropped by 6% in the first year. However the context for this success is critical.

  1. The major problem with drinking water: Most Mexicans do not trust or drink the tap water. More than 10% of the population have no access to running water[2]. 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. Mexicans consume 69 gallons (260 litres) of bottled water per capita each year compared to (116 litres) in the USA[3] – more than anywhere else in the world.
  2. Coca-cola was cheaper than water – it’s what families drank morning, noon and night[4]. Bottled water now is cheaper than soda[5]. UK tap water is safe to drink. Average per capita UK bottled water consumption is 40 litres[6].
  3. Other taxes:

Also in 2014, to encourage people to drink water, another law was introduced in Mexico City officials to force 65,000 restaurants install water filters with health inspectors able to impose $125 to $630 fines to those not complying.

An 8% tax on junk food[7] was also included in the obesity law on non-essential foodstuffs of over 275 calories per 100g[8].

Mexico did try to put other OECD suggestions in place[9] on labelling, education and marketing but most of these were undermined – mostly, it is claimed, by industry.

We agree there is an obesity crisis. We urge policy makers to focus on a holistic strategy to tackle it and not to expect quick or simple wins, and to insist on a high-level, high profile cross-governmental permanent task-force. The media’s focus on sugar could set us up to fail, something that neither our health and economy can afford.

[1] In Berkeley, California, only 22% of the $0.12 per 12oz can tax was passed onto consumers (









About Julia Manning

Julia is a social pioneer, writer and campaigner. She studied visual science at City University and became a member of the College of Optometrists in 1991, later specialising in visual impairment and diabetes. During her career in optometry, she lectured at City University, was a visiting clinician at the Royal Free Hospital and worked with Primary Care Trusts. She ran a domiciliary practice across south London and was a Director of the UK Institute of Optometry. Julia formed 20/20Health in 2006. Becoming an expert in digital health solutions, she led on the NHS–USA Veterans’ Health Digital Health Exchange Programme and was co-founder of the Health Tech and You Awards with Axa PPP and the Design Museum. Her research interests are now in harnessing digital to improve personal health, and she is a PhD candidate in Human Computer Interaction (HCI) at UCL. She is also dedicated to creating a sustainable Whole School Wellbeing Community model for schools that builds relationships, discovers assets and develops life skills. She is a member of the Royal Society of Medicine’s Digital Health Council. Julia has shared 2020health's research widely in the media (BBC News, ITV, Channel 5 News, BBC 1′s The Big Questions & Victoria Derbyshire, BBC Radio 4 Today, PM and Woman's Hour, LBC) and has taken part in debates and contributed to BBC’s Newsnight, Panorama, You and Yours and ITV’s The Week.
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