One big issue with so-called fat taxes is that they may infringe on personal freedoms. The other big issue is that such levies could prove effective.
Mexico last month approved a tax of one peso, or about eight cents, on every liter of sugary drinks sold as it tries to battle the country’s rapidly expanding waistlines. Mexico is just the latest government entity to move – or contemplate moving – against the food industry to combat an obesity epidemic sweeping the globe.
In a sideshow to Mexico’s move that is probably illustrative of America’s love of soda drinks, concern immediately mounted that Coca-Cola would be forced to switch to much cheaper high-fructose corn syrup from the cane sugar it uses to make “Mexicoke,” which has gained a cult following in the United States, the world’s biggest consumer of sugary drinks.
(This story was first published at the Guardian’s Sustainability Web site, which you can read here.)
But Mexico is more concerned about what’s happening in its own borders.
“Mexico is a high consumer of sugary beverages and has a very high prevalence of diabetes,” says Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, a professor of medicine, epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California at San Francisco. “They are just one of many cities, states and countries considering such measures to curb the rising tide of diabetes globally.”
DO SUGAR TAXES WORK?
Bibbins-Domingo is one of the authors of an influential study – released last year – concluding that a 10% reduction in US sugar consumption would avert 240,000 diabetes cases annually, as well as preventing heart attacks and other health-related deaths.
Imposing sugar taxes, however, has proven difficult in some places.Denmark, for example, last year backed off on its sugar tax, saying its citizens – actually far more svelte, on average, than those in the United States and Britain – were skipping, if not lumbering, across the border to get what they needed.
In New York, the courts struck down the plan by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to ban super-sized sugary drinks. The newly elected city chief, Bill de Blasio, said he plans to continue to press the issue, but he will be up against the deep pockets and creative campaigns of the food industry.
At one point in the battle against Bloomberg, an industry group doctored a photo, dressing the mayor in a decidedly frumpish frock, while chiding him for running a “nanny state.”
EVIDENCE IN FAVOR BUIILDS
Still, a growing body of studies suggests that fat taxes might work, despite the loud protests to the contrary. Slapping a 20% tax on sugary drinks would pare Britain’s growing obesity rate by 1.3%, helping some 180,000 people to tread much lighter on their scales, according to recent research from Oxford and Reading universities.
“The greatest effects may occur in young people, with no significant differences between income groups,” according to the study published in the journal BJM. “Both effects warrant further exploration. Taxation of sugar sweetened drinks is a promising population measure to target population obesity, particularly among younger adults.”
Two-thirds of US adults and one-third of children are overweight or obese, according to the Harvard School of public health, and the country spends $190bn per year treating obesity. On average, Americans each buy a whopping 170 liters of soda every year, more than their counterparts in every other country and 16% more than then next biggest soda consumer, Mexico.
“Sugary beverages are the single most important source of sugar in the US diet, accounting for 10% of sugar in the diet,” according to Bibbins-Domingo. “Liquid calories are particularly problematic from an obesity perspective because when they are consumed, they don’t turn off the body’s satiety censors, so their consumption is linked to higher caloric intake generally.
Jason Block, an assistant professor at the Harvard Medical School’s obesity prevention program in Boston, agrees that big taxes are needed but – like many other experts – agrees it isn’t the only way to tackle the problem. (Soda companies also often make this point in complaints that they are being unfairly singled out.)
Taxes should be seen as “a small part of a comprehensive strategy to address obesity, which includes school-based interventions, community redesign initiatives, promoting the medical treatment of obesity, decreasing marketing of unhealthy foods to children and working with the food industry to lower calorie content of foods,” Block says.
Food companies chafe at the idea that government regulation is needed, instead claiming the industry can be self-regulating. “There’s ample evidence to suggest that taxing soft drinks won’t curb obesity, not least because its causes are far more complex than this simplistic approach implies,” according to a British Soft Drinks Association statement.
But others argue that regulation is the only way to constrain global food giants, which benefit greatly from the subsidized American agricultural sector and its massive harvest of corn, now widely used to make relatively cheap high fructose corn syrup.
High-profile food writer and blogger Marion Nestle, for instance, says that it’s paramount for governments to crack down on an industry that, perhaps like the general populace, isn’t great at self-control. “Well I happen to be believer in regulation,” she said in a recent speech. “I think that food companies, even if they want to, cannot voluntarily stop marketing to children, stop selling junk food or stop selling anything.”