Will a Junk Food Tax Slim Down the World's Most Obese Country?
South of the border, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto is poised to achieve a political victory that’s evaded New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and both Barack and Michelle Obama.
Mexico is on the verge of passing a federal junk food tax.
Last week, Mexico’s lower house of Congress approved legislation that would levy a 5 percent tax on junk foods, including soda, and the bill appears to be headed for law. Part of a larger revenue package being pursued by President Nieto, the tax would affect foods that contain more than 275 calories per 100 grams, with a higher, 16 percent tax reserved for chewing gum.
From a public health standpoint, such a tax couldn’t come at a more important time: Mexico recently surpassed the United States as the fattest country in the world, according to the World Health Organization.
In addition to 32.8 percent of the population being obese, Mexico has the world’s third highest sugar consumption per capita—an average of 50 kg annually between 2006 and 2010—and soda is swilled in impressive quantities; according to Coca-Cola, Mexicans drank a per capita average of 728 8-ounce servings of Coke in 2011, up from 460 servings in 2001 and 290 in 1991.
Bumping up the price of a soda by 8 cents per liter should be an effective disincentive through, right? In Mexico, where malnutrition was the diet-related public health problem of greatest concern in recent decades, the equation isn’t so simple. More than half of the country lives in poverty, and despite its headline-worthy status as the world’s fattest nation, hunger still persists. The new taxes may be levied on what’s popularly considered junk—but from the perspective of the poor, the government is taxing the cheapest foods available.
Meanwhile, the new tax package treats the country’s elite lightly, raising their rates only slightly.
Pro-business politicians are unsurprisingly unenthusiastic about the junk food tax, but adopting what’s seen as an American idea to deal with a Mexican problem—on the backs of the poor, no less—has caught the ire of the anti-NAFTA left too. The Los Angeles Times references a full-page ad criticizing the new measure that reads, "Reject the Bloomberg tax. Say no to a tax promoted from abroad, that will not resolve the obesity problem and affects those who have the least."