Capitol, Mexico City

Junk Food Tax Fight Moves to Mexico

Called to action by Mexico’s new top ranking in the world for obesity, charismatic president Enrique Peña Nieto is ready to take on the junk food tax fight. He may find a rough road ahead.

Tobacco, Alcohol, and Food RegulationThe experience with junk food tax fights has been extremely unproductive to date. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has had many successes with health and obesity policies, reducing smoking rates and inreasing access to physical activity and healthy foods. But his quest to tax or limit sugary beverages has yielded nothing. Zip.

Highly visible taxes on fatty and sugary foods in Europe came to a screeching halt when the public and business rebelled. People simply went around the taxes, because alternatives are plentiful.

In Mexico, early trouble signs are popping up. Four of the country’s top 15 public companies sell the junk food Peña Nieto is targeting. Number two on the list, Femsa, both makes and distributes Coke. Femsa also owns convenience stores that sell all manner of junk food everywhere in Mexico. Combine local roots with global connections to the junk food industry in Mexico and you have considerable political muscle coming to the fight.

This all or nothing approach to regulating junk food flows from the experience with alcohol and tobacco. Harsh taxes and regulation have been most successful in reducing the use and harm of tobacco. The experience with alcohol has been mixed by comparison. Though it’s not essential for survival, moderate alcohol use can be healthy and it’s deeply embedded in cultures around the world.

Food is another step further on the scale of necessity. With greater necessity comes a greater regulatory challenge. Simply trying what worked for tobacco had been a flop in most cases.

Activists say junk food is not a necessity. But the definition of junk food is very much in the eye of the beholder. We’ve yet to see a bullet-proof definition. Mark something as junk and numerous alternatives pop up immediately.

All this leads us to believe that a purely adversarial strategy to create a healthier food supply will never work. To be sure, an adversarial thread may be needed to rally public opinion and motivate the industry.

Constructive engagement with the food industry is also necessary.

Click here to read more in the Washington Post and here to red more in the Los Angeles Times.

Capitol, Mexico City, photograph © Eneas De Troya / flickr

Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.