Mexican Abstraction

Soda Down in Mexico, Obesity Not So Much

Mexico is something of a poster child for using taxes to drive down soda sales and fight obesity. A 10% tax on sugary drinks began nationwide there in 2014. After three years of the tax, soda consumption appears to be down, but obesity is still climbing.

New results from Mexico’s 2016 National Health and Nutrition Survey show that overweight and obesity now affect 72.5% of Mexican adults. That number is up from 71.2% in 2012. Mexico’s deputy health minister, Pablo Kuri, offered a positive interpretation:

There is a very slight increase but it’s not statistically significant. In a way, the phenomenon of overweight people and obesity has stabilized.

Overweight and obesity also increased among children overall, though younger children showed a slight drop. Diabetes prevalence rose slightly, from 9.2% in 2012 to 9.4% in 2016.

This is a bit of a problem for the effort to sell soda taxes around the world. Models keep cranking out fantastic estimates of health benefits for soda taxes. Back in November, PLOS Medicine published an estimate that those taxes would save 18,900 lives and $983 million dollars in Mexico.

A more sober assessment comes from Susan Jebb, who is advocating for a tax on sugary soft drinks in the UK. She says:

On its own a soft drinks levy cannot solve the obesity crisis, but we should not underestimate the importance of this step, both for the UK and as a case study for other parts of the world. Then, once this bill is passed, we need to consider how to take effective action to reduce other sources of sugar in children’s diets, notably confectionery, which has so far been relatively overlooked while hearts and minds have been focused on the soft drinks levy.

She might be right, but we’ve got nothing but speculation on taxing confections.

Models are very useful tools for developing estimates of what might happen. Much of the thinking about taxing sugar is based on modeling. At some point, all that modeling data will give way to data about what actually does happen in the real world. So far, those results are not looking good in Mexico.

We need more evidence-based policy and less policy-based evidence.

Click here for more on the latest health survey results in Mexico, here for more on UK proposals, and here for modeling on the potential for a UK soda tax.

Mexican Abstraction, photograph © Paula Soler-Moya/ flickr

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December 16, 2016

10 Responses to “Soda Down in Mexico, Obesity Not So Much”

  1. December 16, 2016 at 6:09 am, Joe Gitchell said:

    No quibbles here, Ted,–heck, not even cookie crumbs of quibbles!


  2. December 16, 2016 at 10:52 am, Allen Browne said:

    Yup – hope springs eternal!

  3. December 16, 2016 at 1:10 pm, Jonathan said:

    Models aside — which as you mention can be and are informative — it seems a bit early to say the impact of the tax on obesity is working.

    Of course no one knows the time frames around reversing obesity, mostly because no one has yet achieved a population-level reduction. But by any measure three years is short unless we have a very good handle on the incidence, and can drill into the data to show that new cases are fewer during this time period. I do not know if the sampling methods for Mexico’s survey are robust enough to achieve this.

    But as Susan Jebb said, reducing consumption of sugary beverages is not a bad thing, and even if it has a smaller impact on obesity than any model predicts. To me equally important issues include whether or not a soda/sugar tax has any other impacts, especially economical, and I have to believe the economists are busy trying to figure that one out.

    • December 16, 2016 at 4:47 pm, Ted said:

      I hope so, Jonathan. Thanks for taking time to leave a thoughtful comment.

  4. December 23, 2016 at 9:42 pm, Patrick said:

    I was most interested to note that your report stated that overweight and obesity in younger children showed a slight drop.

    I would be grateful if you could expand on this finding.

    This suggests that the Mexican Soda tax will lead to decreased rates of obesity in future generations.

    We know that established obesity is largely irreversible but the European EPOD program that reduced the incidence of overweight in children in target towns by 50% suggests that obesity is preventable in the young at least.

    • December 24, 2016 at 4:35 am, Ted said:

      Thanks for your comment Patrick. On that one point, it’s impossible to expand without wild speculation. It might be a red herring. It might be a ray of hope for glorious future results. It’s tough to ignore the overall trend for both adults and children. It’s going on the wrong direction.

  5. December 24, 2016 at 7:12 pm, Patrick said:

    Thanks Ted but it is notable that the United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the incidence of obesity in children aged 2 to 5 years decreased by 40% between 2003 and 2012.

    I would be grateful if you could provide me with the precise figures or charts of the Mexican study showing that overweight and obesity in younger Mexican children showed a slight drop. Such a result would be consistent with the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention data.

    I have searched the internet and have been unable to locate these Mexican figures and/or charts on obesity/overweight trends for young children following the sugar tax.

    • December 25, 2016 at 5:04 am, Ted said:

      Thanks, Patrick. I’ve had similar difficulty obtaining the full report.

  6. December 27, 2016 at 11:53 am, Martin Ekoumou said:

    I recently spent near two months (November and December 2016; just came back to the States for the Holidays) in Mexico, conducting heath conferences in the States of Chiapas and Tabasco (these are the hardest hit area in obesity and diabetes), navigating several cities and their surrounding communities, remote places so to speak. I experienced first hand, the alarming and troubling realities of child and adult obesity, let alone Diabetes. I was shocked to realize how just simple, basic health promotion and educating is sorely needed in the communities to allow people to engage in proper and healthier lifestyle. The general public and even educated people are entangled in the web of commercials, advertisement on TV, Radio, and Newspapers (Los Periodicos); they truly believe in all that is is being bombarded to them through unreliable news, TV, Radio Ads on health products which in fact are unhealthy.
    My #1 for 2017 is to establish a Wellness Center in Tuxla Gutierrez in Chiapas; and in Villermosa, in Tabasco.
    Feel free to join me in in this most needed life-changing project.

    • December 27, 2016 at 11:57 am, Ted said:

      Thank you, Martin, for your thoughtful comments and your good work.