By J. Coyden Palmer, Chicago Crusader
Continuing its role as the highest sales taxed county in the United States, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is adding to the legend by proposing a new tax on sugary drinks, like soda, lemonade and sports drinks.
Preckwinkle says the new revenue is needed to close a $174 million budget shortfall. She said without it, there would be cuts to the county’s law enforcement, judicial and health services. Even with the tax, the county is still going to eliminate 300 present vacant posts and lay off dozens of current employees.
“I could put forth a proposal that would significantly impair our criminal justice system over the next three years and undermine the progress we are making in public health. It would mean at least 1,000 fewer positions in our criminal justice system, including prosecutors, public defenders, sheriff’s deputies, and critical support staff, programs and services,” said Preckwinkle during an address to County Commissioners on Oct. 12.
Preckwinkle added the tax would help improve overall health in the county, thus, reducing the strain on the county’s healthcare system. Sugary liquids have been linked to a sharp increase in diseases, like diabetes, over the last few decades. In the past 30 years, obesity rates have doubled to 600 million worldwide and diabetes to 347 million according to the World Health Organization.
Taxing citizens to get them to change their habits has proven to fail in many other industries. Even those who are critical of the sugar industry do not believe taxing sugary products is the answer.
“It balances budgets for governments, but doesn’t stop people’s addictions to certain products,” argues Gary Taubes, author of the book, Why We Get Fat.
He said the sugar industry plays a large role in the aforementioned diseases, but he said taxing sugary products is not going to solve the problem. Instead, Taubes believes educating the public on what to eat and what not to eat is the better long-term solution, along with getting the food industry to stop placing sugar in so many items.
Morris Smith of Coca-Cola and a representative of the Illinois Beverage Association visited the Crusader offices last week. He said the IBA thinks the proposed tax is unfair because it singles out one industry. He went on to say the law would require businesses to pass this tax on and the tax might likely drive consumers somewhere out of Cook County, which would affect the sales of businesses in the county.
“In any business, if you lose sales…it could affect how they employ people. They are in business to make money, and if they’re not making money, they can’t employ people,” Smith said. He also disagrees with Preckwinkle’s assessment that the tax will make people choose healthier products.
“I don’t think you can tax people into changing behavior,” Smith said. “Even though obesity is a serious issue…you can’t single out a single beverage as the cause and everyone has the choice to eat or drink what they choose. If you look at a state like Alabama, which has a beverage tax—one of the highest in the country—they still also have one of the highest rates of obesity,” Smith said.
Anything that is not 100 percent juice would be taxed under the plan. That would include popular sports drinks, like low- or no-calorie Powerade and Gatorade’s G2. Many people recently switched to those drinks because they are a healthier choice.
“I can understand you wanting to tax products that are full of sugar, but what did Gatorade do to the county to get put on this list?” asks Rodney Flynn of Richton Park. “I switched to these products because they are healthier. If they tax them, I will simply drive five minutes to Will County and buy the products. I’m not going to deal with this county tax.”
The American Heart Association said 6-9 teaspoons a day in added sugar is a healthy amount. Anything over that is considered excess. Americans consume 19.5 teaspoons of added sugar a day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Ironically, some of the beverages with the highest sugar counts are 100 percent pure fruit juices, which are exempt from the proposed tax.
Nutritionist Dr. Jonny Bowden recommends eliminating fruit juice entirely because of its high sugar content and offers little to no fiber that the real fruit does. Drinking fruit juice also makes people hungrier, which can lead to people eating more calories than they need in their daily diet, stated Bowden.