Mexico tries to tax away obesity

A fortnight ago, the Mexican legislature passed two new laws. One imposes a new one-peso (S$0.10) per litre tax on sugary drinks. Another imposes an 8 percent tax on foods that contain more than 275 Calories per 100 grams. Mexico is the latest country to try using tax policy to stem the tide of obesity.

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The government and legislators were stirred into action as the country’s obesity rate surpassed that of the United States. According to Bloomberg, the obesity rate in Mexico is now 32.8 percent, a shade higher than the US’ 31.8 percent. Mexico has one of the world’s highest yearly soda consumptions, with the average Mexican drinking 163 litres of soft drink annually. Diabetes has become a major killer in the country.

Both Mexico’s and the US’ obesity rates are however surpassed by Egypt at 35 percent, Kuwait at 43 percent and the Micronesian island of Nauru at 71 percent.

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The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines obesity in adults as a Body Mass Index (BMI) of over 30. A BMI of between 25 and 30 would make one overweight. BMI is calculated by taking a person’s weight in kilograms, divided by the square of his or her height in metres.

pic_201311_21Obesity has been steadily rising here too. According to Singapore’s Health Promotion Board,

The National Health Survey (NHS) 2010 findings revealed a 0.65% annual increase in the prevalence of obesity (BMI 30) over the past six years, from 6.9% in 2004 to 10.8% in 2010.

Link to source 

But of much greater concern is that our kids are fatter. Data found at http://www.data.gov.sg (and available in Yearbook of Statistics 2013) show that by age ten, our children already have obesity prevalence rates somewhere between 12 and 15 percent (though I am not clear how obesity is defined in children).

pic_201311_11Remember, we’re not referring to being merely overweight. We’re referring to obesity. At the rate we are going, it won’t be long before we too may have to consider public policy measures.

Sugar kills

The fly in the ointment is that taxation doesn’t have a track record of being effective. Mexico may yet prove otherwise, and for that reason alone, its experiment is worth watching.

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The tax on soft drinks should be easy to implement. Soft drinks are almost always made and bottled (or canned) by large companies. If the Mexican government levies the tax at source, it should be easy to enforce. The one-peso-per-litre tax may seem small, but according to some press reports I have seen, Mexicans typically buy their soft drinks in 2-litre bottles, so the tax should be noticeable.

However, price increases of this moderate scale tend to have at best a short term effect. People adjust to the higher price level before long and my guess is that consumption will quickly bounce back to previous levels.

pic_201311_30The government is arm-twisting soft drink makers to introduce products with lower sugar content. That can be done, but where’s the demand? People must want to change their consumption habits, and when it comes to sweet things, it is probably very hard.

A better, if much more intrusive, model would be how fuel efficiency has been gradually lowered in US-made cars. This is done through something called Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE)  federal regulations. The federal government sets a standard of X miles per gallon, and a car manufacturer must demonstrate that the sales-weighted average of the various models of cars sold in the period meets or exceeds the standard. The manufacturer can continue to sell some gas guzzlers, but they must be balanced by sales of very fuel-efficient models if the company is to meet the target. A manufacturer who fails to make the target has to pay a penalty based on the distance from the target. Over the years, the CAFE standard has been tightened and there has been quite remarkable progress in improving fuel efficiency.

Soft drink companies could be set mandatory standards for average sugar content (and artificial sweetener content), with the standards getting slightly stricter year by year. People’s taste should be able to gradually adjust, such that after ten years, we may be consuming a third less sugar even if the literage of soft drinks remains the same.

And just in case you don’t think sugar content is a problem, watch this 45-minute documentary from Canadian Broadcasting:

I looked at the sugar content of common soft drinks in Singapore. This is what I found:

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Several brands do not declare nutritional information on their labels. Now, why is it not mandatory in Singapore to do so?

Greasy food is everywhere

As for Mexico’s 8 percent tax on calorie-rich food, I am still trying to find out how it’s going to work. Unlike soft drinks, the production of rich, greasy food is extremely dispersed. There aren’t just a few companies making them. At countless street corners, food stands do the job. How is the government going to take samples to check if what they make and sell is over 275 kilocalories per 100 grams and collect the tax?

A google search of "quesadilla" and "calories" turns up a result indicating that chicken quesadillas have 293 calories per 100g (sources include USDA)

A Google search of “quesadilla” and “calories” turns up a result indicating that chicken quesadillas have 293 calories per 100g (sources include USDA)

Moreover, there will surely be huge controversy over methods of measurement. An example from a fast food chain would be this: Are we referring to the calorific density of just the burger alone, or the average for the entire combo meal (i.e. including french fries and soft drink)? One method could yield a result above the threshold and the other below it.

pic_201311_17Speaking of that, how many calories are there in a burger? A McDonald’s Big Mac meal (as seen from McDonald’s Singapore’s nutrition calculator) has 1,133 kcal and 1,320 milligrams of salt. The Big Mac itself has 536 kcal, the medium fries 384 kcal and the medium Coke 213 kcal. Unfortunately, the weight is not stated, so I cannot compute the calorific density.

Singapore’s Burgerking website does not provide nutritional information — so much for corporate responsibility.

Burger King US says on this site that its Whopper meal (i.e. including a small serving of french fries and a small glass of Coca Cola) has 1,160 Calories. But it doesn’t give the grammage either, so I can’t calculate the Calories per gram. However, this other site says that

The Burger King Whopper without cheese is available in a 290 gram serving which contains 670 Calories with 360 of those Calories coming from fat. The Whopper without cheese also has 40 grams of fat, 51 grams of carbohydrates, and 29 grams of protein.

Assuming the Whopper in other countries is the same, this means it has 231 kcal per 100 grams, just below Mexico’s tax threshold of 275 kcal.

pic_201311_29Another complication is that it isn’t the calorific density of the food that is key to over-consumption; it’s the total calorific intake. One could well consume the same excessive number of calories (“excessive” depends on one’s metabolic rate and activity level) through eating larger quantities of lower density food.

Between this and the difficulty of taxing innumerable tiny food shops and snack stalls, I can’t see Mexico’s policy delivering intended results.

It seems to me that the best approach is to educate people to want to control their waistlines, but that is far, far harder to do than passing new taxes.

15 Responses to “Mexico tries to tax away obesity”


  1. 1 jaden 12 November 2013 at 18:17

    Do you have the obesity rate for those in JC and upper secondary? I think you will notice a sharp drop in obesity rate for guys who are about to enter NS. NS should be very effective to curb obesity as obese guys would need to undergo extra BMT. The yearly IPPT also forces people to keep fit or there will be RT. I think you should do a study on this.

  2. 2 yuen 12 November 2013 at 19:51

    it is possible to leave aside issues of civil liberty, morality etc and view this purely in economic terms; obesity leads to medical conditions which usually cause public health expenses; the tax allows the government to recover some of the cost from the likely sources of the expenditure

    of course there are other ways in which people can get fat, but some ways are more easily indulged in, and so are more fruitful and convenient sources for tax collection

  3. 3 Richard Lee 13 November 2013 at 09:30

    Taxing addictive poisons (sugar is extremely addictive) won’t stop poisons being sold. Anything addictive is profitable so big business.

    But you can reduce it and make money out of it. Tobacco is a good example. We can probably never stop it but it generates tax revenue.

    Trying to stop it completely only gives the profits to the Drug Cartels as we have with Heroin etc.

    In the end, education is the key.

    We could insist on graphic depictions of obese people on every can / bottle of sugary pop. This has been useful to highlight the dangers of tobacco in Australia.

    We can also ban adverts for addictive poisons targeted at kids. No Coke/Schweppes/Pepsi etc TV or magazine ads.

  4. 5 Tibia 14 November 2013 at 00:30

    Also note that there seems to be quite clear indication that BMI values corresponding to obesity are race dependent. For example, Asians are obese at a lower BMI than European populations.

    http://www.who.int/nutrition/publications/bmi_asia_strategies.pdf

  5. 6 Anon Lrwy 14 November 2013 at 08:37

    I don’t understand why it is so hard for overweight people to lose weight. It is a simple matter of input and output. If you eat more and don’t spend the calories in work or exercise you will gain weight. If you don’t eat enough (like in Ethiopia) you will lose weight. It’s as simple as that.

    I am slim, I don’t overeat and my weight has not fluctuated in 40 years.
    I eat and drink whatever I like but never too much.

    • 7 Anon hcsM 16 November 2013 at 09:33

      At Anon Lrwy

      Your ignorance is probably shared by many people and also probably why most people don’t loose weight successfully.

      Yes, at the most basic physics level, it’s input to output. But that’s assuming a reasonable amount of efficiency in the energy conversion that the body does (i.e put 10 units in and get something like 6 or 7 out), but in fact, the body does nothing like that. It isn’t even a matter of efficiency, because you actually have very little direct control over how your body converts the food you eat into nutrients.

      Also, exercise doesn’t help you to loose weight. Or at least it doesn’t contribute much (also here, I want to say that I use the term ‘loosing weight’ for the sake of convenience, but in fact, weight in kilograms shouldn’t be what people focus on, because muscle is 3 times heavier than fat, so when trying to loose weight, after a certain point, you actually gain weight). Exercising is a more important factor for maintaining weight lost, as well as general health.

      In truth, the whole thing is rather complicated. Loosing weight has more to do with what you eat and how you eat it rather than how much you eat or exercise (I want to stress that exercising is VERY important, but it’s more for maintenance rather than actually loosing the weight. You can exercise like crazy and never loose more than the initial 5 or 6 kg if you don’t also change your diet).

      People who go on crash diets almost never maintain the weight lost during the diet. Reducing what you eat to achieve weight loss is not every effective in the long term.

      The reasons for that is probably too much to go into in a blog comment post, but in short is has to do with hormone balance. Specifically insulin resistance (and in rarer cases, the thyroid, and liver can also go out of balance).

      Again, the whole picture is too much to go into, but basically when a person has high insulin resistance, his/her cells don’t respond well to insulin, which is the hormone responsible for regulating carbohydrate and fat metabolism. It then causes them to become hungry more often because the body isn’t getting the energy it really needs, so they eat more, and the over eating then leads to more insulin resistance etc. so you get into a spiral effect.

      Also, of course, when you do a crash diet, you’re basically telling the body that food is scarce. So it goes into energy conservation mode, and when you end the diet and go back to a normal diet, your body becomes super efficient at the energy conversion and storage for the next “famine”, and you go right back to the pre-diet level.

      It would help a lot in combating obesity to just explain all these to people, I feel, so they actually know what’s going on. The elephant in the room here is carbohydrate (rice, bread, noodles, potatoes etc). Carbohydrate performs almost identical functions to sugar. And while we focus a lot on sugar (with good reason of course), we pay almost zero attention to “staple”.

      Poor people have it worse, because cheap food is almost always carbohydrate heavy.

      As a bonus, I think it would also help a lot if people loose the sanctimony as well. Much easier to get the message across.

      * Important disclaimer. Every body is different from each other, and respond differently. Some people will respond better, and some people will have to put in a lot more effort to see lesser gains in return.

      • 8 Mack 18 November 2013 at 10:24

        1. For God’s sake, it’s “lose”, not “loose”.

        2. Crash diets work when you’re on it. When the diet ends, the weight comes back because you eat more. If you want the diet to “work”, i.e. maintain the weight loss, then make the bloody diet permanent and change the way you eat for the rest of your life. It beggars belief why anyone would expect a short-term change to have a permanent effect.

        3. A certain increase in exercise/work/energy output would result in a certain amount of weight loss. The loss has to stop at some steady point unless you further increase your energy output. Isn’t that common sense? (I guess not.)

        4. If there is really something that stops people from losing weight without reducing energy input and/or increasing energy output, then go tell the poor in Africa what it is. They would find it really useful, especially when there’s a famine.

  6. 9 Tatanka Katsuo 16 November 2013 at 00:34

    greasy food and fats do not lead to obesity; counting calories is erroneous. a lot has to do with the combination of macronutrient intake and rate of absorption ( eating carbohydrates alone vs eating carbohydrates with fats, proteins and fibre — eg. drinking fruit juice is bad;; eating fruits ,whole is good). . refined carbohydrates ( read fructose) and processed foods are culprits in obesity and metabolic illness ( liver, cardiovascular, hormonal). Obesity is not a matter of calories in and calories out.

  7. 10 henry 17 November 2013 at 19:51

    Agree with ‘Anon hcsM’

    It is the carbohydrates that is the culprit. Asians will eat rice and all its forms. It is ok for people working out in the fields ( I never see a fat farmer in Asia ) But urbanised populations are stuck with the old traditions of ” .. have you eaten rice yet?”

    If property developers can advertise regularly about their products, its time the Health Promotion Board be given funding to constantly advertise on TV and all other media. Educate the population about how to combine carbohydrates and fats.

    I believe people will be convinced over time.

    • 11 yawningbread 20 November 2013 at 10:48

      I’m not sure I want the HPB to advertise as intensively as property developers. The cost of such advertising for property is added to the property sales price, but HPB’s advertising cost comes from tax revenues. I think we each have to do our part to spread the message about “sensible” eating.

  8. 12 Anon Lwry 18 November 2013 at 07:43

    @ anon hcsM

    If input and output is not the main cause of obesity, please explain to me why the survivors of Auschwitz and Changi POW camp were all skin and bones.

    The article talks about obesity and BMNI and eating wrong foods such as soft drinks and junk food, not about nutrition and liver or kidney diseases.

    • 13 Clo 21 November 2013 at 05:05

      Oh, wow. Godwin’s Law within 12 comments in a conversation about obesity.

      Seriously, I don’t understand why you and Mack responded to Anon hcsM the way you did. His comment never suggested that extreme food deprivation wouldn’t result in weight loss.

      Citing extreme examples like famine in Africa and the Holocaust isn’t helping the discussion about obesity in the developed world.

  9. 14 Anon hcsm 23 November 2013 at 21:20

    This is from anon hcsm.

    I was not going to reply, because I think my initial post stands as it was. However, two points were later brought up by two separate posters that I felt needs addressing. This is on the off-chance that someone reading this comments section decided to implement some kind of diet plan, based on what is written, and this reply is basically addressing that potential person.

    The first concern crash diets, wherein one poster advised that to make the crash diet work, make that crash diet a permanent change.

    Please DO NOT go into a crash diet. It is disastrous for your health. DO NOT do things such as only eating a tomato for breakfast, some fruits for your lunch, and celery for your dinner. Making that a permanent change in your diet will just ensure a trip to the hospital hooked to a drip.

    Instead of just reducing what you eat to extreme levels, please consider simply replacing the sugary and starchy foods you eat to something else. Replace white rice, noodles and potatoes, sweet stuff (this includes fruits by the way. don’t overeat fruits, because fruits are, after all, sweet, and therefore means it’s got high glucose contents).

    I suggest more green leafy things, and nuts as well. Brown rice. Basically, go for things with low glycemic index. Also consider, instead of just reducing the amount you eat, to basically spread out what you eat. Have several small meals instead of a few big ones.

    I would also like to stress that before starting on a diet, to please consult with your doctor first. Because, as I said before, every body is different and will react differently.

    The next point concerns what a body actually does when faced with extreme deprivations. i.e. being locked up in a gulag or concentration camp.

    Your body stores a certain amount of glucose (either taken direct from sugars or converted from carbohydrates). That amount varies from person to person, but free glucose in the bloodstream above that level gets converted to fat. The reason for this is because fat is a far more stable form of energy and your body automatically changes it to fat for future use.

    The fact that fat is more stable also means that it’s much harder to burn. In extreme deprivations, once your body depletes available glucose, it will loose muscle mass first before starting on fat. Because remember, muscles are expensive in energy terms to maintain. If you are not going to actually use those muscles, the body will loose it. Also, you can’t build muscles without protein, and in extreme deprivations, you are very unlikely to have access to protein anyway.

    The best way to burn fat is to get your muscles to do it. There are two types of muscle fibers in your body, aerobic and anaerobic. Anaerobic muscles burn glucose (actually, adenosine triphosphate, creatine phosphate and glycogen, but for the sake of simplicity…). Aerobic muscles burn fat…..eventually. To get them to actually start burning fat, you need to make them work long enough to do it, which means low intensity cardiovascular exercise such as running, swimming or cycling for a decent amount of time.

    In other words….once again…starving yourself is not a good answer to loosing weight. Eat enough. Eat well, eat right, and exercise!

    And once more to the people not troubled by obesity, seriously, loose that fucking sanctimony.


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