The success of a national tax on sugary drinks implemented in Mexico presents a strong case for policymakers around the world to adopt similar strategies, researchers say.
The introduction of an 8 cents per litre levy on all non-dairy and non-alcoholic beverages with added sugar has been found to motivate people to swap soft drinks for water since its introduction on 1 January 2014.
The findings, published in the BMJ, come as the global anti-sugar movement appears to be gaining momentum.
Updated national Dietary Guidelines for Americans released on Thursday recommend specific limits on sugar consumption for the first time.
In line with WHO guidelines released in 2015, the US guidelines now recommend that added sugars represent no more than 10% of energy intake per day.
Mexico, which had the biggest per capita consumption of sugary drinks in the world in 2011 (163L per person), decided to introduce the controversial tax to help combat skyrocketing rates of obesity and diabetes.
During the first year of its implementation, sugary drink consumption was found to drop by about 4.2L per person, equating to seven fewer 600mL bottles per person over the 12-month period.
At the same time, consumption of non-sugary drinks, particularly bottled water, rose by about 13L per person over the one-year period.
Countering arguments that the tax is regressive, reductions in sugary drink intake were found to be most substantial among low socioeconomic groups.
The results were based on data from more than 6000 households in 53 Mexican cities.
In an accompanying editorial, international health economist Dr Franco Sassi said the results were not surprising but were “of the greatest importance” for other governments looking to cut down sugar intake.
“The single most valuable contribution taxes can make to a public health strategy is the signal they give consumers … that a government is concerned about the harms associated with unhealthy diets and is serious about tackling them,” wrote Dr Sassi, who is head of the OECD public health program based in France.
“This is the strongest incentive for consumers to reconsider choices often made automatically, based on habits or environmental influences, and for players in the food supply chain to reorient their production towards healthier options.”
Australian dietary guidelines released in 2013 recommend cutting out added sugars, although no exact limits are set.
The Australian Government has not flagged any plans to tax sugar, but a recent Newspoll survey found that more than eight in 10 Australians would support a tax on sugary drinks if the revenue was spent tackling childhood obesity.