Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Lawmakers look to improve Illinoisans' diets

By Lauren N. Johnson

Lawmakers are considering bills they hope will make Illinois residents healthier by encouraging them to cut down on beverages with added sugar and banning foods containing trans fat.

“Young people like sweet things,” said Chicago Democratic Sen. William Delgado. He hopes to cut down on children’s’ sugar intake with Senate Bill 396, which would place an excise tax of $1.28 per gallon or $.01 per ounce on highly caloric sugary beverages. Under the measure, a 12-ounce can of soda would cost Illinoisans 12 cents more in taxes, and the money would go into a fund for programs in schools and communities geared to prevent childhood obesity.

Elissa Bassler, chief executive officer of the Illinois Public Health Institute, said more than 62 percent of adults are overweight or obese, and one and five children struggle with obesity, which she said leads to cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes.

“Currently, the direct health care costs of obesity is more than $4 billion, and that’s expected to rise to as much as $14 billion by 2018,” said Bassler, who noted that more than $1 billion of those costs are paid for with state and federal tax dollars through Medicaid. She suggested that the tax could bring savings of $1.5 billion over 10 years in health care costs to the state by reducing consumption rates.

Proponents of the proposal say the tax would serve as a funding source for many of those prevention programs and the state’s fiscal problems. Some believe, however, that tackling other sides of the issue may be more effective.

Sen. Dave Syverson, a Republican from Rockford, said groups should take a “systematic approach” to addressing unhealthy foods served in schools and place stronger restrictions on what can be purchased with food stamps. “The idea of having kids show up at school having french toast sticks for breakfast and then trying to educate them that having a soft drink is bad for them doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,”  Syverson said.

Those who oppose the tax say beverage distributors have taken steps  to address obesity and that an additional tax would place an undue burden on the average person’s grocery bill. Tim Bramlet, executive director of the Illinois Beverage Association, said sugared beverages only make up seven percent of the average American’s diet and that a number of jobs would be at risk if the tax were imposed.

“It would impact businesses that make products right here in Illinois, where we produce the soft drinks on which many families depend on for their income,” Bramlet said. “Obesity is a very complex problem. …We don’t think taking aim at one very small part of the issue is a way to solve the problem,” he added.

Another measure, House Bill 1600, sponsored by Chicago Democrats Rep. LaShawn Ford and Sen. Donne E. Trotter, would ban trans fat used in Illinois restaurants. A Senate committee today approved an amendment that would give an exemption for baked goods. John Roeser, vice president of the Chicago Retail Bakers Association and independent owner of Roeser’s Bakery in Chicago, said that without the the exclusion of baked goods in the bill, many retail bakers would have closed their doors.

Many restaurants are not pushing back against the proposed ban because they have already stopped using the additive, which has taken a beating in the media from public health advocates. “So many members really stopped using trans fat in recent years,” said Janet Isabelli, spokeswoman for the Illinois Restaurant Association.

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