Mexico’s soda tax is having a major impact

It seems that every other country in the world is willing to take steps to improve its public health other than the United States. What’s more, they’re doing it without spending billions of dollars — and in fact making some money along the way. Even a country that someone wants to build a wall around.

That’s right, Mexico is more progressive than we are in terms of having a public health standard that fights disease by encouraging healthier behavior. And they’re starting with something I’ve been advocating for years: a hefty soda tax.

It’s worth noting that Mexico is off the charts in terms of soda consumption. Of all countries in the world, no one drinks more soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages than Mexicans. On average, each Mexican drinks 43 gallons of sugar-sweetened beverages per year.

Not surprisingly, their type 2 diabetes rates are also among the highest in the world. So the Mexican government, seeing the clear connection between sugary drinks and diabetes risks, plucked up the courage to take on the sugar industry. Against fierce opposition, they introduced a sweeping tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.

And that 10 percent tax could have big impacts, according to a team of U.S. researchers. In a study published in the journal PLoS Medicine, the researchers predicted that the national tax could cut sugar use significantly. Even using a conservative estimate of a 10 percent reduction in sugary drink consumption, the law could have massive effects.

Over 10 years, the new tax could mean approximately 190,000 fewer cases of diabetes, more than 20,000 fewer strokes and heart attacks, and almost 19,000 fewer deaths in Mexico.

And then there are the cost savings — almost one billion dollars in just one decade.

Imagine that — saving money while saving lives! Someone please tell me why the U.S. government can’t make smart choices like this. Instead, they continue to ignore the obvious because big business, in the end, always wins.

The Mexican soda tax was actually imposed in 2014, which means we now have some real data to look at to see how it’s working. And the numbers are already more impressive than the PLoS Medicine study is predicting.

In the first year after the tax was imposed, sugary drink purchases dropped by an average of 6 percent per month — reaching a decrease of 12 percent by the end of 2014.

If the reduction reaches 20 percent, that would result in even greater effects — 368,600 fewer incident cases of type 2 diabetes and almost 100 million dollars in additional savings.

Now, you might be tempted to assume that these results wouldn’t apply here in the U.S. I mean, the 43 gallons of sugary drinks per person per year consumed in Mexico sounds outrageous. So of course any sort of change would have a big impact there.

But the truth is, if you consider what those seemingly astronomical amounts look like on a daily basis, it’s right in line with what the typical American drinks.

In fact, before the tax took effect, Mexican men consumed just over one serving of soda per day and women consumed just under one serving per day.

Without the change that the tax brought about, that would have meant 3.9 million new cases of type 2 diabetes and 1.2 million cardiovascular disease deaths over the course of a decade. Not from chugging liters a day — just from one daily serving. This is definitely a case where “everything in moderation” simply doesn’t apply.

Of course, taxation is just one part of the picture — education is also key.

Mexico undertook a massive education campaign, with commercials and billboards making a clear link between sugary drinks and obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. They also implemented guidelines for healthy foods and beverages in schools (meanwhile our schools have soda machines in the cafeterias), front-of-package labeling, and rules about how sugary beverages can be marketed to children.

And with all the tax revenue they’re generating, Mexico plans to continue pushing its fight against sugary drinks, in part by increasing access to drinking water in public spaces and schools.

Just imagine what the United States government could achieve if it had the courage to do the same.