Speaking at EAT Stockholm Food Forum

Mexico’s battle against diabetes and obesity

Published April 11, 2016

In January 2014, the Mexican parliament voted yes to a national tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. A loss for the sugar industry, but a victory for the health of the people. The powerful consumer’s organization El Poder del Consumidor, will speak at the EAT Stockholm Food Forum 2016.

Mexicans love Coca Cola, Fanta and other sugar-sweetened beverages. Walking the streets of Mexican towns you even see baby bottles filled with yellow or orange soda.
National surveys show that Mexicans drink more soda than nearly anyone else in the world. Mexico also has by far the world’s highest death rate from diseases related to sugar consumption.
However, since the soda tax was implemented, the situation is changing for the better. Nearly one-fifth of the Mexican population still drink more than three liters of soda per week, but that is a reduction from the four litres per week consumed during the previous year.
El Poder del Consumidor, a consumer’s organization putting healthy food, public awareness and responsible consumerism on the agenda, saw one of their major goals fulfilled with the tax. However leader Alejandro Calvillo, who will speak at the EAT Stockholm Food Forum 2016  June 13–14th, emphasizes that the battle must continue.
Alarming development
In 2006 Mexico’s National Survey of Health and Nutrition presented an alarming report stating that deaths caused by diabetes had doubled since 2000 and that diabetes was the country’s leading cause of death.
The survey also documented that the Mexican population was gaining weight at a very fast pace. During a seven year period, the average waist size among women of childbearing age had increased by nearly 11 cm.
The same year as this study was published, Alejandro Calvillo, initiated the organization El Poder del Consumidor (Consumer Power). Having spent 12 years at Greenpeace Mexico, with five years as executive director, Calvillo founded a consumers organization to fight industry pressure and advocate for pro-consumer policies.
According to Calvillo, Mexico at that time had little tradition in civil movements and political activism. Until 2000, the Mexican population had lived with one political party in power for more than 70 years. Mexicans lacked practice in democracy. That is also changing. El Poder del Consumidor has been a central actor for civil society to obtain the soda tax and have mandatory regulation of food and beverage within schools in order to keep junk food out of schools.
The organization has created an informal network of sister organizations focusing on
health, environment, smallholder agriculture and indigenous rights. Together they form the national Nutritional Health Alliance.
Since the epidemic of obesity is in part related to poor individual choices, better access to healthy food choices, especially for vulnerable populations, is one of Calvillo’s primary focus areas.
Among other achievements, Calvillo and his partners have played a major role in gaining the government’s promise to limit advertising on children’s television.
Healthy choice
From their headquarters in a working-class neighborhood in Mexico City’s south, with cobbled streets and chickens in the backyards, El Poder del Consumidor has brought attention to the issue of Mexico’s diet and created public awareness over the past ten years.
The early years were a struggle in various ways. The organization lacked funding and in 2008, Calvillo had to sell the family car to keep the organization afloat.
Obesity and diabetes are regarded huge challenges around the world, and global health experts hold soda tax as one of their top recommendations. Mexico is ahead of many countries, being one of the first to implement the tax system. President Obama considered proposing a tax in 2009, but did not extend the proposal to the Congress.
Calvillo now is campaigning to take it even further: double the soda tax and remove the VAT on bottled water. If he gets his way, a soda will be twice the price of a bottle of water the same size, which makes the healthier choice by far the most economic.
Mexican sugar battle
OBESITY: Mexico ranks just behind the USA as the world’s most overweight nation, with more than one-third of adults classified as obese.  In January 2014, the Mexican government unveiled a countrywide tax of sugary beverages. The ten per cent increase is designed to make consumers rethink their choices.
PROMISING CHANGE: According to a public survey after the soda tax was implemented, just over half of the 1500 participants said they had lowered their consumption of sugary drinks and 98 per cent linked soda consumption to the risk of developing diabetes and obesity.
GOVERNMENT INCOME: The soda tax is one peso per liter, which in 2014 added to $ 1.3 billion of new tax revenue for the Mexican government.
Advocates for consumer power
ENVIRONMENT AND FOOD: Alejandro Calvillo founded El Poder del Consumidor (Consumer Power) in 2006. For ten years the organization has been carrying out policy advocacy campaigns, for example to promote a national tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, healthy school food policies, prohibition of marketing unhealthy food and beverages to children, adoption of effective front of pack labeling.
Alejandro Calvillo will speak at EAT Stockholm Food Forum 2016 June 13–14th.