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Mexico: Taxes are a war on obesity

The proposed tax could help prevent 515,000 new cases of diabetes by 2030 and lead to $14 billion in savings for the health system
Obesity cost the Mexican health system 42 billion pesos (US$3.2 billion) in 2008

Mexico’s lawmakers have declared a war on obesity after they passed a law imposing significant new taxes on junk food and sugary drinks. The taxes will increase the price of junk foods (those high in saturated fat, sugar and salt) by 8%. It will also put one peso on a litre of sugary drinks, which the average Mexican consumed at a rate of 43 gallons per person per year.

The money raised is intended to go towards health programmes and increased access to drinking water in schools. Among other measures, the government will introduce a nutritional stamp of approval for healthier foods on sale in supermarkets.

“Never before has any civilization faced an epidemic that didn't involve an infectious disease,” said Enrique Ruelas, president of Mexico's National Institute of Medicine. “Today, this situation is not only unprecedented, but a threat to the nation's future.”

According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation report 32.8% of Mexican adults are obese. The healthcare burden of diabetes and heart disease in Mexico is already impacting lives. Some 9.2% of children in Mexico now have diabetes.

Diabetes cost the lives of about 81,000 Mexicans in 2011, almost three times the number of homicides in a nation wracked by violence as drug cartels battle one another and the government for territory.

Obesity cost the Mexican health system 42 billion pesos (US$3.2 billion) in 2008, an amount equivalent to 13 percent of spending on health, according to the National Academy of Medicine. Should current trends hold, that cost would rise to 101 billion pesos in 2017.

The proposed tax could help prevent 515,000 new cases of diabetes by 2030 and lead to $14 billion in savings for the health system.

Mexico has fronted the food and drink industry, and resisted lobbying and warnings that raising prices would do nothing to help the country's economy.

The government believes that any potential economic harm from reduced junk food and soft drink sales, will be insignificant compared with the damage (both social and economic) in years to come if the country’s obesity rates continue to rise.

The vote by congress is a triumph for the anti-obesity crusade of President Enrique Peña Nieto, who will now sign the measures into law. As the legislation was passed, he called for a "change of culture" in his country, including the incorporation of at least an hour of exercise for all Mexicans every day.

The plan will also award products that meet standards for having lower calories or higher fibre content a ‘seal of nutritional quality’, which he said would give industry an incentive to re-formulate products. He also announced plans for educational, health-monitoring and sports programmes.

"We can't keep our arms crossed in front of a real overweight and obesity epidemic,” the President said. "The lives of millions of Mexicans are literally at risk.”

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