How Mexico Got Its Soda Tax

hecho-en-mexico-coca-cola

When you’re trying to get a public health law passed and the country’s two major TV networks decline to air your ads, a real uphill battle takes place. This was the situation in Mexico, where a former president had previously been the head of Coke’s Latin American business, and many other politicians were financially and philosophically tied to the soda manufacturer.

On the side of the angels was El Poder del Consumidor (“Consumer Power”) an organization dedicated to protecting the consumers. El Poder banded together with a couple of dozen other national groups to form the Nutritional Health Alliance (NHA), which stood for various progressive causes on behalf of human rights, small farmers, children, ancestral foods, and free water in the public schools. NHA also asked the authorities not to tax bottles of water smaller than 10 liters, so people would be motivated to buy water instead of sweetened fizzy drinks.

The coalition registered strong objections to one particular Coke advertisement. El Poder’s director, Alejandro Calvillo, argues that the drinking of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) is an “aspirational act” that essentially enables people to brainwash themselves into “the desire to belong to a world from which they are excluded.” Some people don’t see a problem with that. The same could be said about great books, by which generations of people have been inspired to aspire.

The difference is that books don’t cause type 2 diabetes or bring about the demise of all the teeth in a child’s mouth. Books don’t disturb the microbiome, or inject weird chemicals into the brain, or cause a person to weigh 300 pounds.

Cavillo explains his condemnation of soda:

Those instances of marketing “happiness”, of belonging to that advertised world, are accompanied by the activation of the pleasure centers in the brain by the high quantities of sugar.

In January of 2014, the 10% soda and junk food tax hit Mexico. During the first year, purchases of SSBs went down 6%, good news to a government concerned about childhood obesity. This was not good news for the corporations, which of course want to make as much money as possible, although they have bounced back by selling their potions in smaller containers and charging more per ounce.

It was statistically noticeable, once the tax took effect, that lower-income households bought less soda, which of course was the intended result. The connections between poverty, obesity and its co-morbidities are familiar territory. No government wants to deal with them, but somebody has to do something, and a sugar tax brings at least partial satisfaction to part of the constituency.

On the other hand, there are people who characterize the tax as punishment visited on the poor. They point out the cruelty of hiking the price of one of life’s few affordable luxuries. For some, the freedom to swig cheap SSBs is a deeply-held ideological tenet. Any attempt to impact the habit by, for instance, taxing it, is resisted as a fascistic encroachment on a seller’s right to sell and a buyer’s right to buy.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Taking on Big Food: How low-income countries are targeted for distribution of junk food,” Dailymaverick.co.za, 09/13/16
Source: “Sales of sugary soft drinks drop by 6% during the first year of tax introduction,”
UKHhealthForum.org, 06/22/15
Photo credit: Mike Mozart (JeepersMedia) via Visualhunt/CC BY

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