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Soon after Mexico approved a tax on sugary fizzy drinks and junk food last year to fight an obesity epidemic, Miguel Barbosa, a leftist senator, slipped into a diabetic coma. He later admitted that it was his failure to manage his illness that caused an infection that put his life in danger for two weeks and led to the amputation of his foot.
When it comes to diabetes, Mexico is a ticking time bomb. Seven out of 10 adults and a third of children are obese or overweight – a principal cause of type 2 diabetes, which has risen sharply in Latin America’s second-largest economy – and 9.2 per cent of Mexicans have been given a preliminary diagnosis of diabetes. But the Mexican Diabetes Federation warns that the number of sufferers could in fact be twice as high.
“Diabetes used to be something we only saw in adults, but now we’re starting to see it in children too. It’s very worrying. These children are getting this pathology 30 years early,” says Valeria Szymanski, a nutritionist at the Mexican Association of Diabetes.
“Right now, not everyone who is overweight has diabetes, but they very probably will develop it. It’s a huge problem – the health system could collapse,” she says.
Is the 10 per cent tax on fizzy drinks, plus another levy on junk food, which have been in place since the start of this year, working?
Mexicans guzzled some 163 litres of fizzy drinks per head a year before the tax and frittered away 24 times more on junk food than on the 10 most important basic foodstuffs.
Fernando Zárate, a leftist legislator who has been pushing in vain for the soda tax to be doubled, says a study by the National Institute of Public Health showed that consumption of taxed sugary drinks had fallen 10 per cent while consumption of untaxed beverages such as water and milk had risen 7 per cent.
Mr Zárate says a 20 per cent tax on fizzy drinks would have saved 13bn pesos in the medical cost of treating conditions directly related to being overweight or suffering diabetes in the next decade, and help prevent as many as 1.3m cases of diabetes by 2030.
At the current 10 per cent soda tax rate, the number of cases prevented is 400,000 to 630,000, he estimates.