Mexico is in the midst of an epidemic. Unlike the Zika virus causing havoc in other countries in the region, this outbreak has been simmering for years. Those suffering often don’t take action until it is too late. There is no specific ‘cure’ for this epidemic, which has complex causes – prevention remains the best treatment. However, there are ways to try to fight it, which the Mexican government has begun to introduce.
There’s no question that obesity has become an emergency in Mexico. Around a third of all Mexican adults are obese, the highest rate in the world. Obese individuals are more likely develop debilitating chronic diseases such as type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and require more healthcare over the life course than people of a healthy weight. As obesity has increased in Mexico the burden of disease has shifted from infectious and neonatal diseases to chronic, non-communicable diseases (NCDs). It’s no coincidence that there has been a corresponding increase in the availability of cheap, processed food and drink. The way Mexicans eat and drink has completely changed: traditional, unprocessed food such as beans, vegetables and tortillas have vanished from many dinner tables, in favour of American-style fast food and sweet snacks. And the country has become addicted to fizzy drinks – Mexico now has the highest per capita consumption of high sugar drinks in the world, far more than even the USA. It’s no surprise that Mexico is also home to the highest prevalence of type II diabetes in the world – 14.7% of the adult population suffer from the condition.
Therefore, the ‘fizzy drinks tax’ introduced by the Mexican government in January 2014 has been a kind of experiment, to see if taxing unhealthy food and drink can significantly decrease their consumption. It appears to have had an impact – sales of sugary drinks dropped significantly in 2014. And there may be larger decreases to come as Mexicans adapt to higher prices and get used to drinking less soda, similar, in a way, to the decline in smoking rates seen in many countries after the introduction of tobacco taxes.
However, these results should be taken with a pinch of salt. It’s unclear how much of the decline in fizzy drinks consumption can be credited solely to the tax. Evidence shows that consumption was falling even before the tax was introduced, possibly due to more comprehensive health campaigns by the Mexican government.
A tax on sugary drinks is a good start, but it doesn’t tackle the other factors contributing to obesity in Mexico. The biggest causes of premature death in Mexico are ischaemic heart disease and chronic kidney disease, as well as type II diabetes. It is not just fizzy drinks consumption that is fuelling the rise of these NCDs; many Mexicans eat a diet high in calories, fat and salt, which may be as harmful to health as consuming too many fizzy drinks. Therefore, taxes on processed foods should be introduced too, to try to cut down on their consumption.
Food and drinks taxes cannot exist in isolation – though they may drive down sales of processed food and drink, public health campaigns must be introduced to educate people on how to keep healthy. The sugar tax doesn’t deal with the lack of exercise in Mexico; 19.4% of the Mexican population is considered to be ‘physically inactive’ by the WHO, and this proportion is increasing. Exercising regularly can be a protective factor against obesity and associated NCDs, so campaigns to increase physical activity should be implemented alongside efforts to improve eating habits. There also need to be campaigns to curb childhood obesity. This is vital, as obese children are highly likely to become obese adults. Educating children at school on how to keep healthy, increasing the availability of healthy food and drinks, and increasing physical activity can all help to decrease childhood obesity.
Critically evaluating the effect of Mexico’s sugary drinks tax is not only crucial for middle- and low-income countries. In the UK, sugar consumption is a huge problem, especially among children. Tooth decay has become the number 1 reason children are admitted to hospital, and more people are developing chronic illnesses like type II diabetes at a younger age. Though David Cameron has in the past ruled out a sugar tax, the tentative success of Mexico’s tax in reducing soda consumption may change his mind. In middle- and low-countries, lax regulations on marketing and incredibly sophisticated supply chains mean that drinks companies are found all over the world, even in the smallest villages. Fizzy drinks may be seen as desirable, a symbol of wealth, and a lack of education on proper nutrition means that many people don’t realise how unhealthy they are.
It’s now widely accepted that obesity is a global problem. Many more people worldwide are obese than are suffering from undernutrition, and obesity rates continue to rise. As access to unhealthy, processed food increases across the world, policymakers will need to find ways to cut down on their consumption to battle obesity. A tax on sugary drinks is a good start, but other strategies need to be implemented too. As obesity is a global problem countries should work together to try to tackle it, as happened with tobacco. Ideally, this would involve governments working together to raise awareness of the diseases associated with obesity, and introducing taxes on all unhealthy processed food and drinks.
Featured image © Peter Barwick
Helena Reut-Hobbs recently graduated from UCL with an MSc in Global Health and Development, after studying Biomedical Sciences as an undergraduate. She has worked on development projects in Tanzania, and is interested in health inequalities, the effects of climate change on health, and health policy.