Photograph by Susana Gonzalez, Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Mexico passed an aggressive 10-percent tax on Coca-Cola and other sodas in 2013, which, combined with public health campaigns, appear to be having an impact on the health of its population.

Photograph by Susana Gonzalez, Bloomberg via Getty Images
The Plate

How the Soda Tax Hits Home

Mexico's population is among the most obese in the world, and faces ballooning health care costs. See how the struggle affects one woman.

Whether a tax on soda measurably improves health has been a hot debate for years, but a global public health organization is enlisting the aid of a young Mexican woman—an aspiring singer—to help humanize the challenges.

Verónica Patricia Ruizvera has battled with weight her whole life, and she’s not alone. Seventy percent of Mexican adults are overweight or obese—one of the highest numbers in the world. Her father has severe complications from diabetes, brought on by high blood sugar levels. In fact, diabetes affects 14 percent of the Mexican population.

As she slowly takes the stage in the video, "The Taste of Change," you can see her struggle, but you can also see her spark. “I don’t like getting tired at my age. It frustrates me. I’m 24 and I get so tired. I don’t want this. I want to go out, jump, run … Life right?”

Her fears and aspirations are woven into a story of how the world’s first large-scale soda tax, passed by the country in 2013, appears to be moving the needle towards reduced consumption and, public health officials say, fewer cases of diabetes.

In late 2014, a study by the University of North Carolina and the National Institute of Public Health in Mexico (INSP) demonstrated a six percent reduction per capita of soda drinking in the country. It jumped to 12 percent at the end of that year. Simón Barquera, director of nutrition policy research at INSP, says the impact may be even higher as the 10-percent soda cost increase particularly affects the buying habits of heavy soda users, who tend to be in the lowest-income bracket.

For its part, the soda industry has opposed increased taxes, saying soda is a small part of daily calories and cosumers will only seek other calorific drinks. Of note, the Wall Street Journal reports Mexico’s soda consumption inched back up this summer as public health campaigns have quieted down. But the industry is under increasing pressure as cities like Philadelphia and countries like India, South Africa and the Philipines look to follow Mexico’s model.

But Ruizvera’s is not just the story of a tax, or an attack on soda. It’s the story of how many complex factors need to come together to change food habits.

“There are a lot of contributors to obesity and diabetes—not just soda—but it’s low-hanging fruit because there’s no other [nutritional] value,” says Mats Junek, regional director of the Americas at NCDFREE, an Australian-based group that advocates for solutions to non-communicable diseases.

The problem of obesity and related diseases may seem overwhelming. “But there are changes you can make," Junek says. "This inspires us to say we can actually reach for better."

The video premiers Thursday in Toronto.