Two Years In, Mexico’s Soda Tax Is Still Working

Consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and other junk food is on the decline—but not as dramatically as some had hoped for.
A market in Mexico City. (Photo: Travis/Flickr)
Jul 7, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Mexico’s calculated—and controversial—gamble to curb the country’s out-of-control obesity epidemic by taxing junk food and sugar-sweetened beverages appears to be paying off—though the taxes haven’t been the magic pill some folks expected.

In a study published this week in the online journal PLOS Medicine, researchers found that the 8 percent tax imposed by Mexico’s national government on an array of “nonessential” calorie-dense foods (i.e., junk food) starting in January 2014 led to an average 5.1 percent reduction in purchases of those foods in urban areas across the country (data for rural areas wasn’t available). The study was conducted jointly by researchers from Mexico’s National Institute of Public Health and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the same team that reported last year that Mexico’s 10 percent tax on soda and other sugary beverages appeared to be responsible for a 6 percent drop in consumption of those items.

Taken together, the two studies offer the best empirical evidence yet that such taxes work to limit consumption of the types of foods and beverages that have been linked to excessive weight gain and its related ills, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes. That’s because Mexico’s taxes are by far the most ambitious to have been enacted in any country. Even as a wide range of public health organizations have advocated for such taxes (see the World Health Organization’s recent report on childhood obesity), their support has generally been based on best-guess scientific predictions on whether the taxes would work. Until now, they haven’t had any real-world taxes to study, at least not on the scale of Mexico’s.

Although the researchers behind the current study on Mexico’s junk food tax describe their findings as “significant,” media reports have so far tended to pooh-pooh them. Should we have expected a more dramatic double-digit drop in Mexicans’ consumption of potato chips, ice cream, and the like? The drop of 5.1 percent is more or less equivalent to skipping a candy bar once every other month, but the researchers take pains to point out that the actual reduction could well be higher, as the data for a number of types of junk food was limited or nonexistent.

To carp that Mexico’s tax didn’t lead to a greater reduction in junk food consumption only plays into the hands of the big food lobby, which has long obfuscated on the issue by pleading that the obesity epidemic plaguing Mexico (and the U.S.) is “complex” and that taxes alone won’t solve it. No duh. But as the twin studies on Mexico’s two taxes demonstrate, they can work as part of a more comprehensive campaign that includes initiatives to encourage more exercise and to educate the public about healthier eating habits—initiatives that can be funded by money raised from taxing unhealthy foods and sugary drinks. How sweet is that?