Should we slap a tax on sugary drinks?

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A tax on sugary drinks like sodas, fruit juices and energy drinks — a hotly debated idea in the U.S. — may be leading consumers in Mexico to buy fewer such beverages.

In 2013, Mexican lawmakers passed a special tax on sugar-sweetened beverages that increased the price by about 10 percent. The result: purchases of the taxed drinks fell by roughly 12 percent by the end of 2014.

Mexico had the largest per-person consumption of soft drinks in 2011, according to the study by researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and from Mexico. It also has one of the highest rates of obesity in the world with about 70 percent of adults and one-third of 2-to 18-year-olds being overweight or obese.

“Several studies showed that before the debate over this tax the intake of sugar-sweetened beverages was rapidly increasing in Mexico,” the researchers wrote. “Reducing such consumption has been an important target for obesity and diabetes prevention.”

The beverage industry asserts there such taxes have no demonstrable effect on obesity rates.

“Taxes on common grocery items do not make people healthier and the scientific data shows this,” said Lauren Kane, a spokeswoman for the American Beverage Association. “Industry and government should work together to help inform people about the importance of balancing calories in the entire diet, not just one small portion of it, if we really want to tackle obesity in an effective way.”

Sugar-sweetened beverages have been linked to rising rates of obesity across the globe. Obesity, in turn, is associated with a host of health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and certain cancers.

“Obesity is a global phenomenon, although the United States and Mexico are the fattest countries in the world,” said Ursula Bauer with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Sugary drinks aren’t the cause of the obesity epidemic, but they make up a significant portion of Americans’ increased calorie consumption, Bauer said.

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Efforts to implement similar taxes on sugary drinks in the U.S. have been met with stiff opposition. (In 2014, Berkeley, Calif. became the first city to pass such a tax.)

While consumption of sugary beverages has declined in recent years, children and adults in the U.S. consume twice as many calories from these drinks compared to 30 years ago.

A study published last year in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that such a tax in the U.S. would reduce consumption of sugary drinks by 20 percent and result in $23.6 billion in healthcare cost savings. The researchers also estimate it would lead to a nearly 1 percent drop in obesity prevalence among adults and a 1.38 percent decrease among youth.

Whether taxes on sugary drinks would make a significant dent in America’s obesity epidemic remains to be seen.

The evidence is still building, said Bauer with the CDC, but early results show consumption has indeed changed.


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