Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Two Democratic lawmakers propose tax on sugary drinks

By Caitlin Rydinsky

Two Democratic legislators have proposed a sugar-sweetened beverage tax in hopes that it will promote healthy lifestyles within Illinois.

Supporters say the legislation was introduced in an effort to help reduce the number of people with obesity, heart disease and cancers. Rep. Robyn Gabel of Evanston introduced House Bill 5690, which requests a 1-cent-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages sold or offered to retailers. The proposal indicates the retailer would be responsible to collect the tax from consumers. Sen. Mattie Hunter of Chicago proposed an identical bill under Senate Bill 3524. “Now, this won’t be an easy bill to pass,” Gabel said. “Some say it is moderation and exercise, but the reality is that a person needs to walk 3.3 miles to work off just one 20-ounce soda.”

The tax on the sugary drinks, including sports drinks, soda, fruit juices and some coffees, to name a few, is estimated to raise $600 million annually. Half of the money would go to Medicaid to reinstate dental care and other cuts. The other half would go to a wellness fund to promote community health and awareness. The Illinois Alliance to Prevent Obesity said in a written statement that the tax targets sugar-sweetened drinks because strong evidence links them to obesity and other chronic illnesses.

“(The diseases) are costing us a lot of money in terms of health care costs. The estimate is obesity alone costs Illinois $4 billion or more in health care costs,” said Elissa Bessler, chief executive officer of the Chicago-based Illinois Public Health Institute. “So it is really a fiscal crisis and a health care crisis in Illinois.” Hunter said some may call the tax regressive, but she said obesity is also a health concern that is disproportionately plaguing the poor.

“Others will say that the tax is regressive, and it hurts poor people. Well, I’ll tell you what hurts poor people. That extra marketing of these drinks in poor communities, that hurts poor people. That extra deaths of diabetes and heart diseases in poor communities. The lack of safe places to exercise and healthy places to eat in poor communities. The cuts in Medicaid hurt poor people,” Hunter said.

While sugary drinks are linked to obesity and other medical issues, some question whether a tax is the best way to get people to cut back on consumption. “The soft drink industry has done a good job at making consumers know calories — not that it wasn’t on there before, but by putting it on the front of the can and from minimizing the ounces in cans,” said Tanya Triche, vice president and general counsel of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association. Triche said merchants are already working on ways to promote better choices by having healthy foods at the entrance of the stores to help consumers think of better choices as they arrive. “It is already happening without the government getting involved by taxing.” She said the organization wants consumers to spend money buying more produce and food, rather than on taxes.

The Taxpayers Federation of Illinois has not taken a stance on the bill, but President Carol Portman said, “If you want to fight obesity, taxing isn’t the way to do it.”

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