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 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.
- 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. 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 – more than anywhere else in the world.
- Coca-cola was cheaper than water – it’s what families drank morning, noon and night. Bottled water now is cheaper than soda. UK tap water is safe to drink. Average per capita UK bottled water consumption is 40 litres.
- 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.
Mexico did try to put other OECD suggestions in place 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.
 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)