Mexico and California:  The Waterloo for Soda Tax Proponents?

Last November, the Mexican government, with the help of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and in desperate attempt to curb its world-leading obesity rate, passed a 10% per liter tax on sugary drinks.

Advocates hailed the measure as the silver bullet that will once and for all prove that manipulated fiscal policy is the key to fighting obesity at home and abroad.

In a few weeks, voters in Berkeley and San Francisco, California, will vote on soda tax measures in their communities.  The campaign has become quite heated, with both sides exchanging allegations of manipulation and untruths.  You are shocked at this, I know.

For decades, a national soda tax in the U.S. has been the dream of those who blame food companies for the obesity epidemic.  They should be careful what they wish for.  In Mexico and possibly one or more cities in California, their own efforts have created a laboratory that will prove their hypothesis wrong.

There is a ton of data and a plethora of reasons why a soda tax will fail to reduce obesity. Here are the two most cogent:

  • Sugar does not cause obesity. Too many calories from all sources and a lack of physical activity do.

  • If (and its never been proven that they will) people reduce the amount of soda they buy in significant quantities due to the increased cost of beverages resulting from a tax, they are prone to replace those calories with other calorie dense foods containing sugar, other carbohydrates or saturated fat.

Time and time again, too many non-governmental organizations, public health officials, policymakers and others get tunnel vision when it comes to obesity.  The only strategy they can envision is the one used to heel the tobacco industry nearly twenty years ago.

That is their flaw. Every problem is different in its origin, its impact and its solution.  A retaliatory campaign against beverage and food companies will get us nowhere in the fight against obesity.

Whether in Mexico, California or any other corner of the nation or the world, science has already handed us the formula for rolling back obesity.  Spend the time and the money to educate consumers how to eat right and move more.  It’s proven. It works.  Why do you think obesity rates among 2-5 year olds has decreased significantly in recent years? Moms and dads are starting to get the message.

Even in the face of this overwhelming evidence, far too many leaders (some self appointed) continue to fail consumers with their passionate and near-sighted infatuation with tax policy as the silver bullet in the battle against obesity.

In due course, Mexico may turn out to be their Waterloo.

Sean McBride, Founder and Principal of DSM Strategic Communications, is former Executive Vice President of Communications for the Grocery Manufacturers Association and former Director of Communications at the American Beverage Association