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New Soda Tax Makes Mexico a Leading Guardian of Public Health

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This month the new government of Mexico made history. In the country that consumes more soda per capita than any in the world, where the former president had been the top executive for Coca-Cola, the national Congress struck a blow for public health by passing a one-peso-per-liter tax on soda and an 8 percent tax on junk food. We in the U.S. can learn a lot from our neighbor to the south--as well as from countries including Finland, Hungary and France that have passed similar measures. Even England's Conservative Party-led government is considering such a tax.

All these countries understand the toll that rising rates of diabetes, heart disease and other chronic conditions are having on the health of their people and on national medical costs. They understand that they are facing a public health crisis and that strong regulatory action can discourage soda and junk-food consumption and save lives.

The Mexican soda tax, which will go into effect Jan. 1 2014, applies to all foods with added sugar, not including milk or yogurt. The junk-food tax is on high-calorie foods that pack 275 or more calories into 100 grams of food including chips, candies, pudding, peanut and hazelnut butters, milk, sugary cereals and ice cream. Meanwhile, federal regulators have announced their intention to issues rules to regulate TV advertising of junk food products that would ban ads for sugary drinks, fried foods and other unhealthy food items from appearing on television at certain times of day when large numbers of children watch.

One of the organizations that has helped lead this struggle is called El Poder del Consumidor--Consumer Power in English--and shortly after the historic vote, I was fortunate enough to meet and appear at a press conference with the group's leaders and its allies in a coalition called the Nutritional health Alliance. El Poder del Consumidor is headed by Alejandro Calvillo Unna, the former leader of Greenpeace Mexico, who wants to make the group a potent consumer's voice and help create a Mexican movement for community health and wellbeing.

I believe this effort is historic and can begin to reshape public attitudes towards community health and the conditions that promote it. I know the kind of impact that local and state restrictions and taxes had on reducing cigarette use in the U.S., protecting millions of people. We know taxes reduce consumption-especially among young and low-income people who have less disposable income and are more sensitive to price increases. We also know that media coverage of the tax is leading to lots of ongoing discussion and bringing issues about the risks of unhealthy food to a broader audience.

I also believe that all of this will reduce the consumption of junk food and soda--and all the sugar and 'wasted calories' these foods and drinks contain--helping slow the dramatic rise in diabetes, stroke and other chronic diseases that is taking place in so many countries. While the revenue from the tax has not specifically been earmarked to support health efforts, legislation is pending in the Mexican Congress to provide at least 3.5 billion pesos (about $270 million) to install water fountains in schools.

The Mexican legislation is one big step towards slowing and reversing the epidemic of unnecessary and preventable disease. We know that changing attitudes and ideas about health and healthy environments is a slow process that will build over time. I believe this action will have a positive impact, and that as people see this--and understand that the right policy changes can improve public health--it will lead to follow-on work in Mexico and similar efforts throughout Latin America.

My hope is that the audaciousness of Mexico's action also will trigger more activity here in the U.S. The big soda and food companies have increasingly been using racially charged divide-and-conquer tactics, suggesting that soda or junk-food taxes are a "nanny state" idea advanced by white liberals that will unfairly harm black and Latino families. Mexico's new law turns this idea on its head. El Poder del Consumidor and its allies have pushed the soda and junk-food taxes precisely because of the links between poverty and health and precisely because people of color--indigenous people in the Mexican context--bear the greatest burden of an unhealthy food environment that leaves drinking water largely unavailable while Cokes and fast-food restaurants are ubiquitous.

The soda industry, dominated by Coca Cola, lobbied heavily against the measure. The main television stations refused to carry advertising in favor of the soda tax, while running lots of ads from industry opponents. So El Poder del Consumidor and its allies ran a grassroots campaign and used cable TV, radio commercials, subway publicity and billboards with message like "In your right mind, would you give your child 12 teaspoons of sugar?" to promote the cause. Bloomberg Philanthropies, the foundation of Michael Bloomberg, helped support the effort as part of its $10 million commitment aimed at helping reduce obesity in Mexico. Bloomberg's role drew attacks from critics for getting involved in another country. Personally, I find that argument rather silly, given that Coca-Cola, a US-based multinational, controls 75 percent of the Mexican beverage market and helped bankroll the opposition to the tax.

El Poder del Consumidor deserves a lot of credit for taking the kind of bold steps that have been stymied so far in the U.S. (but are certain to break through sometime soon). In the years I spent working with allies in the movement to control tobacco, we often were told that proposals to ban smoking in restaurants, public buildings or bars just couldn't be done and would never happen. As Poder's Rebecca Berner said at our meeting last week, quoting Amelia Earhart: "Never interrupt someone doing what you said couldn't be done."