By Diana Guarnizo*
The relationship between the consumption of drinks with a high sugar content and the increase in obesity, just like the relationship between obesity and other diseases like type 2 diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, and dental issues (i.e. cavities) among others, have been clearly documented. Hence why the increasing consumption of these drinks anywhere around the world is worrying. It is not only about sodas, but also teas, flavored water, fruit flavored beverages, and energy drinks. The majority of them have sugar intake levels above those recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO)and the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) for a healthy diet.
Nonetheless, instead of thinking that excessive sugar consumption and the obesity epidemic are problems that exclusively apply to the Global North or developed countries, this is a situation that is increasingly common in Latin American countries.
Despite the perception that the United States is the greatest consumer of sugary drinks, recent research led by Barry Popkin and Corinna Hawkes shows that several Latin American countries surpass the consumption level of the United States. In fact, while the United States has been reducing consumption of sugary drinks in recent years, consumption has increased in Latin American countries. According to the statistics of this study, three out of the six top consumer countries of sugary drinks in the world are in Latin America: Mexico, Chile and Argentina, taking the first, second, and fourth place respectively. The United States takes the third place. Saudi Arabia and Germany, in the fifth and sixth place, also make part of this group.
At the regional level, this research also shows that after North America, Latin America is the region where people consume the most sugary drinks.
These statistics also match the reports on the increase in obesity in Latin America. According to WHO statistics, Latin America is one of the regions in the world with the greatest increase in obesity in recent years.
The situation in children is equally alarming. Obesity in both children and adults is increasing around the world, particularly in low income countries. For example, in the last 30 years,the prevalence of overweight in children and teenagers increased by 50%.
What can Latin America do to discourage the consumption of these drinks, reduce the health impacts, and in this way, prevent an obesity epidemic?
The WHO and PAHO have released strong recommendations to states suggesting the adoption of public policy measures with the goal of discouraging the consumption of these drinks. These measures include fiscal policies that increase the taxes on consumption, publicity restrictions especially on advertisements targeting minors, prohibition of sugary drinks in schools, and the installation of drinking water fountains.
The implementation of said recommendations in the region is mixed. For example, on the imposition of fiscal measures, in 2014, Mexico implemented a national tax of one Mexican peso per liter for all sugary drinks. The same year, Chile approved a tax of 13% ad valorem for drinks with a sugar content greater to 6.25 milliliters, which was later increased to 18%. In 2016, Ecuador also approved a tax of 18 cents USD for each 100 sugar grams per liter for all sugary drinks. In Colombia, there are current discussions about the possibility of creating a tax for these drinks, although it is not clear yet what the amount or the taxable base would be.
The industry’s criticisms have not stopped coming. With some frequency, companies have claimed that the evidence linking sugary drinks with obesity is insufficient, that this is a problem related to the lack of exercise more than to the excess of sugar, that a tax on consumption is not effective, that it would reduce jobs, or that it is regressive and affects low income people the most.
Regarding these criticisms, the analyses looking at Mexico and Berkley, places where recently the government has imposed the tax, show a reduction in the consumption of sugary drinks by 10% and 21% respectively. They also show that the industry has not lost any jobs nor profit, but that companies have moved towards the commercialization of “healthier” products. In the same way, studies demonstrate that despite it being a tax that can affect low income people the most, it is also a measure that prevents the consumer from having to visit the doctor frequently and consuming medication. It also results in the health system devoting less resources to the care of diseases related to obesity since while reducing consumption and risk of obesity, the tax brings savings in healthcare expenses.
Even if the industry is defensive and some governments remain indifferent, if we learn from the experience of policies against cigarettes, the change is only a matter of time. Not only in Latin America, but at the global level, there is a movement that recognizes the negative impact that these drinks have on health. People are also working to impose fiscal measures that discourage their consumption as seen in England, where currently there are debates around a tax or Philadelphia, where it was recently approved.
But this is not only about a trend or an attempt to import foreign policies to the Global South. It is also about having a debate about exercising our rights. Governments have a duty to protect their citizens from the impact of third parties on their rights. In this sense, governments have the duty to establish public policies, fiscal measures, and other types of policies (i.e. guarantee the consumption of potable water in all regions and allow the access to water fountains in schools and other public places) with the aim of protecting the right to health and a healthy diet for all. Even more, states must work so that the debate on these issues is accurate and informed and not monopolized by the industry or one sector of the debate. Let’s hope that Latin American governments are aware of their duty to protect and guarantee the rights of their citizens and take concrete measures in favor of public health and a healthy diet for all. We all deserve a healthier future with less sugar in it.
*Diana Guarnizo is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia).
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