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 (http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/2015/08/study-berkeley-soda-tax-falls-flat)

[2] http://blogs.ft.com/beyond-brics/2013/09/04/mexicos-bottled-water-addiction/

[3] http://phys.org/news/2014-01-mexico-city-law-habit.html#jCp

[4] http://english.periodismohumano.com/2013/03/05/the-coca-colization-of-mexico-the-spark-of-obesity/

[5] http://www.numbeo.com/cost-of-living/country_result.jsp?country=Mexico

[6] http://www.statista.com/statistics/283766/bottled-water-consumption-per-person-in-the-united-kingdom-uk/

[7] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/01/world/americas/mexico-junk-food-tax-is-approved.html?_r=0

[8] http://www.internationaltaxreview.com/Article/3299441/Companies-will-have-to-collect-new-Mexican-taxes-to-combat-obesity.html

[9] http://www.oneillinstituteblog.org/the-devils-in-the-detail-mexicos-broken-obesity-prevention-campaign/

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About Julia Manning

Julia Manning is a social entrepreneur, writer, campaigner and commentator. She is based in London and is the founder and Chief Executive of 2020health, an independent, social enterprise Think Tank whose aim is to Make Health Personal. Through networking, technology, research, relationships and campaigning 2020health has influenced opinion and action in fields as diverse as bioethics, alcohol, emerging technologies, fraud, education, consumer technology and vaccination. Julia studied visual science at City University and became a member of the College of Optometrists in 1991. Her career has included being a visiting lecturer at City University, a visiting clinician at the Royal Free Hospital, working with south London Primary Care Trusts and as a Director of the UK Institute of Optometry. She specialised in diabetes (University of Warwick Certificate in Diabetic Care) and founded Julia Manning Eyecare in 2004, a home and prison visiting practice for people with mental and physical disabilities using the latest digital technology, which she sold to Healthcall (now part of Specsavers) in 2009. Experiences of working in the NHS, contributing to policy development, raising two children in the inner-city and standing in the General Election in Bristol in 2005 led to Julia forming 2020health at the end of 2006. Julia is a regular guest on TV and radio shows such as BBC News, ITV’s Daybreak/ GMB, Channel 5 News, BBC 1′s The Big Questions, BBC Radio, LBC and has taken part in debates and contributed to BBC’s Newsnight, Panorama, You and Yours and ITV’s The Week. She is mum to a rugby-mad son, a daughter passionate about Shakespeare, and wife of a comprehensive school assistant head-teacher. She loves gardening, ballet, Zimbabwe, her Westies Skye and Angus, is an honorary research associate at UCL and a Fellow of the RSA.
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