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President-Enrique-Pena-Nieto

Mexico to tackle obesity with taxes on junk food and sugary drinks

The vote by congress is a triumph for the anti-obesity crusade of President Enrique Peña Nieto (pictured), who will now sign the measures into law.

Mexican’s vast appetite for sodas, chips, snacks, sweets — all manner of what they call “comida chatarra,” or junk food — has helped inflate an overweight nation to obesity levels.

As the legislation was passed, he called for a “change of culture” in his country, including the incorporation of at least an hour of exercise for all Mexicans every day. Mexico has higher rates of adult obesity even than the US, according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation this year – 32.8% against 31.8% of Americans.

“We can’t keep our arms crossed in front of a real overweight and obesity epidemic,” the president said. “The lives of millions of Mexicans are literally at risk.”

Taxes on unhealthy foods and sugary drinks such as colas and lemonades have been introduced by a few other countries in Europe and Scandinavia, but often subtly. Mexico has confronted the food and drink industry head on, resisting tough lobbying and warnings that raising prices would do nothing to help the country’s economy.

But the government has taken the long view – that the potential economic harm from reduced junk food and soft drink sales now is insignificant compared with the damage in 10 years time if obesity continues at the current rate. The healthcare burden of diabetes and heart disease in Mexico is already huge and increasing.

​Nearly 15% of Mexico’s health budget is spent treating obesity-related ailments. In 2008, the country spent over $3.2-billion on the disease, more than double what it spent in 2000. Nearly 10% of the population now suffers from diabetes.

The taxes will increase the price of junk foods – those high in saturated fat, sugar and salt – by 8%. It will also put one peso (about 64c) on a litre of sugary drinks such as Coca Cola, which Mexicans consume in vast quantities at a rate of 162 litres per person per year – the highest in the world. The portion related to soda taxes is intended to raise some $950 million annually.

The money raised is intended to go towards health programmes and increased access to drinking water in schools. Among other measures, the government will introduce a nutritional stamp of approval for healthier foods on sale in supermarkets.

Disincentivising unhealthy foods and drinks has become such an important initiative in Mexico’s agenda although the record of taxes aimed at changing consumer food behaviours is somewhat mixed.

Obesity campaigners worldwide have been looking to food and drink taxes as a way to encourage people to change their diet and reduce the amount of fattening food and drink they consume. Norway has had higher duties on sugar, chocolate and sweetened drinks since 1981 and Samoa, which has very high obesity, has had taxes on sugary drinks since 1984. Australia introduced a 10% tax on soft drinks, confectionery, biscuits and bakery products in 2000.

Denmark repealed a tax on products with high levels of saturated fat in 2012 after just one year as Danes went to Germany or Sweden to load up on ice cream and butter.

Additional reading:

The world’s fattest major country consumes an astounding  amount of Coca-Cola products

Mexico’s soda companies fear junk-food tax

Your beloved Mexican coke is in trouble: Quartz

Sources: Huffington Post, Washington Post.com, qz.com, The Guardian

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