Contributing Op-Ed Writer
Published: November 29, 2013(Page 2 of 2)
This has meant not only fiscal reform but more vigorous attempts to rein in corruption, break up monopolies in energy and communication, and aggressive public health moves, like the constitutional addendum of 2011 that guarantees all citizens “the right to nutritious, sufficient and quality food.” In fact the biggest takeaway may be that the government of the country with the world’s 14th-largest gross domestic product has placed public health above the profits of an important industry.Yes, this may have been a politically expedient calculation (and no, Mexico is hardly Nirvana), but the reality is that the regulation of an industry that needs regulation is happening. And there could hardly be a more important and legitimate role for government than attending to the health and well-being of its populace; we need not reflect too long on the inability or unwillingness of the government of the country with the world’s largest economy to recognize this. (Equally embarrassing.)Although the soda tax got most of the attention, other moves are also important. The junk food tax, first proposed at 5 percent but boosted to 8 when one senator argued that 5 percent didn’t even cover the public expenditure on health problems caused by junk food, will use caloric density to define processed foods that are detrimental to health. The formula, which will exclude meat, dairy and other “real” foods, would tax those foods that contain more than 275 calories per 100 grams, or just over three ounces. (For perspective: 100 grams of Snickers is about 500 calories; 100 grams of apple is approximately 50 calories.)And although Mexico’s Constitution forbids “earmarks” — tax revenues for specific purposes — there’s at least preliminary agreement that much of the money from the new taxes be used for public health, including giving all schools drinking fountains that dispense purified water. (When asked if they were in favor of a soda tax, most Mexicans polled said no. When advocates linked the tax to obesity prevention, including clean water in schools, 70 percent were in favor. Soda tax campaigners, please note.) Especially in rural areas, people might end up using schools to get water for their homes, which would make it more likely that schools would be used to distribute subsidized fruits and vegetables, another goal of public health advocates.Sugar (and by extension sugary beverages) is one of the three luxuries — along with tobacco and rum— described by Adam Smith as “extremely proper subjects of taxation”; it has proved to be the toughest to tax of the three. And although the soda tax is being hailed by supporters on both sides of the border (the American Heart Association said in a statement, “Mexico’s effort provides an excellent starting point, but we need U.S. states and communities to enact the tax as well”), there is also wariness, because the tax is roughly half what research indicates to be the super-effectiveness threshold of about 20 percent. The peso-per-liter level is still meaningful, however; in fact, Femsa, Mexico’s Coke bottler, has said it would pass on the tax by raising prices between 12 and 15 percent.Still, it’s difficult to be confident, especially since these taxes seem small against the overall challenge: significantly reducing consumption of sugar and controlling the marketing of junk food to kids. Furthermore, public health education is needed to turn around the culture of sugar, in which people may buy and drink sweet beverages despite higher costs and the presence of alternatives. When I visited Mexico City recently, tax advocates told me that the new moves made it clear that the previous administrations did nothing to prevent the obesity crisis (indeed, the next-to-last president was a former president of Coca-Cola Mexico). The new government has raised the stakes in defining a quality diet, recognizing that cheap calories are not sufficient and that real food is preferable to processed products.Unlike the meaningless chant of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” (or the ridiculously chauvinistic “We’re No.1!”), ¡Viva México! actually means something: “Let Mexico Live!” (Or, more popularly, Long Live Mexico!)But thanks largely to proximity (and Nafta) Mexico has suffered more from adapting the standard American diet than any other country. Everyone, it seems, is surprised that these taxes are going forward. It would be fitting if they paved the way toward a saner diet, just as it would be both paradoxical and wonderful if the United States could follow its lead.