Mixed reactions to new study on Mexican sugar tax

Mixed reactions to new study on Mexican sugar tax

A new study on the effects of the Mexican tax on sugar sweetened beverages published in the medical journal ‘The BMJ’ has triggered different reactions among experts, after finding  a 6% drop in sales, while an increase in consumption of bottled water and other non-taxed drinks.

A research team from Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Salud Pública, a federal health agency, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill compared sales data before and after the implementation of the tax, looking at purchasing patterns in more than 6,000 households across 53 large Mexican cities. They found that on average in 2014 the sales of sugary beverages fell by 6%. The decline was particularly high among low income households, whose consumption had fallen 17%, confirming the discriminatory effect of such a tax.

Some observers looked at these findings as the proof that taxation can influence consumers’ behaviour, while others are more cautious, questioning whether such a measure is appropriate and warning of its multiple and complicated side effects. The study itself concludes that at the moment it cannot be foreseen “whether the trend continues or stabilizes” and if “consumers substitute cheaper brands or untaxed foods and beverages for the taxed ones, or adjustments occur in the longer term”.

Franco Sassi from OECD, in an editorial published on ‘The BMJ’ together with the study, underlined that taxes do not necessarily lead to healthier diets and the “full extent of substitutions made by Mexican consumers is not known”. Mr. Sassi also added that “taxes are not simple tools, and designing them to engineer an improvement in people’s diets is especially complex”. The approach to a problem like the one of obesity should be comprehensive, much broader than just taxation: education, voluntary initiatives by the industry and regulatory measures (e.g. labelling) are some examples.

“Taxes (…) cannot be viewed as a magic bullet in the fight against obesity” – he concluded.

OECD Obesity Update

OECD Obesity Update

This policy brief presents an update on analyses of trends and social disparities in obesity. Some key insights from the policy brief:

  • “It is difficult to predict how consumers will react to price changes caused by taxation. Some may respond by reducing their consumption of healthy goods in order to pay for the more expensive unhealthy goods, thus defeating the purpose of the tax. Others may seek substitutes for the taxed products, which might be as unhealthy as those originally consumed”.

You can find the whole paper here.

Healthy Choices

Some key insights from the 2010 OECD Health Ministerial Meeting

  • “[…] fiscal measures aimed specifically to change behavior are complex to design and enforce; their impact may be unpredictable as the price elasticity of demand varies across individuals and population groups; they can bear more heavily on low-income groups than on those with higher incomes, and substitution effects are not always obvious”.

You can find the whole paper here.

Obesity and the Economics of Prevention. Fit not Fat.

The book examines the scale and characteristics of the obesity epidemic, the respective roles and influence of market forces and governments, and the impact of interventions. Some key insights from the book:

  • “The impact of the tax on government and supplier (e.g. food manufacturer) revenues will depend on the elasticity of consumers’ demand for the taxed product”.
  • “Taxes on lifestyle commodities, or sin taxes, tend to be controversial. Critics perceive them as undue interference with individual choice. Governments levying such taxes are sometimes seen as “profiting” from unhealthy behaviours”.
  • “In addition, taxes on consumption are typically regressive, unless consumption is concentrated among the wealthiest, which is certainly not the case for most potentially unhealthy lifestyle commodities, as the consumption of these tends to be concentrated among the less well off. Therefore, tax payments will weigh more heavily on the incomes of the most disadvantaged”.
  • “In addition to distributional effects, imposing taxes on certain forms of consumption may also generate costs, mainly in relation to enforcement. When prices in a market are kept artificially high by taxation, phenomena like parallel trade and smuggling will flourish, which governments must then regulate or repress”.

You can find the whole paper here.