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Local lawmakers blast proposal to tax sugary drinks

Published: Tuesday, March 25, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, March 28, 2014 2:15 p.m. CDT
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(Kyle Grillot – kgrillot@shawmedia.com)
Illinois lawmakers are considering a bill that would add an excise tax to soda pop. The state would use the revenue to create an “obesity fund” that would help to “diminish the human and economic costs of obesity in the State of Illinois,” according to the proposed amendment. A series of hearings is being held to determine the merits of the tax and subsequent fund.

That 12-ounce can of pop soon could cost more if a bill being discussed in the state Legislature is approved.

The Healthy Eating Active Living Act proposes to place a penny-per-ounce excise tax on sugary beverages, which include beverages with added caloric sweeteners such as soda, fruit drinks, sweetened teas and coffees and energy and sports drinks. Diet or no-calorie drinks, milk or milk substitutes and unsweetened seltzer water would be exempt.

In other words, a 12-ounce can of pop or a 12-ounce sports drink would go up 12 cents. The act, introduced in February in twin bills sponsored by state Rep. Robyn Gabel, D-Evanston, and state Sen. Mattie Hunter, D-Chicago, is estimated to raise more than $600 million in the first year of the tax for prevention and health care.

State Rep. Tim Schmitz, R-Batavia, is opposed to the tax. He believes that education is a more effective way of curbing obesity.

“If you drink a 12-pack of pop a day, you’ve got to have the education to understand that’s not good for you,” Schmitz said. “If they are going to charge a penny an ounce, it’s probably not going to dissuade people that much.”

State Rep. Mike Fortner, R-West Chicago, also opposes the bill.

“This is a product that’s already taxed,” he said. “We already have that problem with motor fuels, where we tax the tax. There are two different taxes on motor fuels, and I think that’s a problem. It’s one of the things that causes us to have the highest gas prices in the Midwest.”

And he also doesn’t think that increasing the price of sugar-sweetened beverages will necessarily stop people from buying them. He used cigarettes as a comparison.

“The education probably does more to discourage smokers than the price of a pack,” Fortner said. “The fact that we educate, the fact that we’ve done a good job promoting the health risks – I think that does a lot more than just saying we’re going to put a tax on it.”

The bill was introduced with the support of the Illinois Alliance to Prevent Obesity. Proponents contend the increased purchase price for sugary beverages will reduce consumption by about 23 percent in the first year of implementation.

Dr. Frank Chaloupka, professor of economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, testified during a recent Illinois Senate Public Health Committee about a study he authored that found the proposed excise tax could reduce childhood obesity by 9.3 percent, diabetes by 3,400 new cases and save taxpayers more than $150 million in state and private health care spending in the first year of the tax.

According to the Illinois Alliance to Prevent Obesity, one in three children in the state are overweight or obese and nearly one in 12 Illinoisans have been diagnosed with diabetes.

“I think this is a really exciting bill because it’s multifaceted in the way that the problem of obesity is multifaceted,” said Elissa Bassler, CEO of the Illinois Public Health Institute, the convening organization of the Illinois Alliance to Prevent Obesity.

Half of the revenue generated by the tax would go into a wellness fund to support initiatives that promote such things as physical activity, school health and wellness, access to healthy foods and obesity prevention. The other half of the funds will support the state’s Medicaid program.

“There’s a cost to society of obesity, of these health care costs,” Bassler said. “This helps to place those costs where they belong.”

The Kane County Health Department hasn’t taken a stance on the bill, said Michael Isaacson, assistant director of community health for the Kane County Health Department. But he added “that we support efforts to reduce people’s consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages.”

“There was an article recently in The Journal of the American Medical Association that provided more evidence of a link between the amount of added sugar people have in their diet and dying from cardiovascular disease,” Isaacson said.

Isaacson said sugar-sweetened beverages are also “the number one of beverage calories, which is completely unnecessary.”

“We would much prefer to see kids drinking more water, or healthier low-fat dairy,” he said.

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