By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
Chicago’s county stepped closer on Thursday to being the largest area in the country to institute a sweetened beverage tax.
After nearly five hours of debate and dozens of speakers, the Cook County Board of Commissioners voted 9-8 to add a penny-per-ounce tax on sugary beverages, such as sodas, flavored teas and sports drinks.
Also taxed are diet colas and other drinks containing artificial sweeteners, but it excludes milk and medically necessary beverages.
The American Heart Association called the move “a major victory for the health of the county’s most vulnerable communities.”
“Research shows this tax will reduce consumption of sugary beverages and, in turn, lead to a decrease in the chronic diseases that are currently devastating our low-income and minority communities,” said Dr. Karen Larimer, president of the AHA’s Metro Chicago Board of Directors. “The financial, emotional and physical toll of diabetes, heart disease and cancer far exceed the financial impact of this tax on Cook County residents.”
The decision comes a couple of days after a resounding election day success for soda tax advocates – with 62 percent of the vote in San Francisco; 61 percent in Oakland, California; 71 percent in Albany, California; and 54 percent in Boulder, Colorado. Boulder’s was a 2-cents-per-ounce tax, while the Bay Area cities passed 1-cent-per-ounce versions. Those taxes all are on beverages where sugar is added.
Those four cities follow Berkeley, California, whose residents voted in a tax in 2014, followed by the Navajo Nation, whose government approved a junk food tax, that included sugary drinks.
Then, this summer, Philadelphia’s city council approved a 1.5-cent-per-ounce tax, a move being challenged in court by the American Beverage Association.
Still, the stakes are high in Cook County. Home to Chicago and its suburbs, it has 5.2 million people – more residents than all the cities who have passed the tax combined.
Board President Toni Preckwinkle introduced the sugary tax measure – which is projected to bring in nearly $224 million annually – to help balance the county’s struggling budget, beginning with the new fiscal year Dec. 1.
Preckwinkle said raising taxes wasn’t her first choice, but it would help the county become financially stable, and it would show “a commitment to public health by supporting and expanding the services we provide.”
Representatives from the beverage association and its supporters, including the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, and workers and executives from Dr Pepper Snapple Group, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, spoke at Thursday’s meeting, calling it a regressive tax that would hurt businesses and workers.
“We will be reducing our footprint in Cook County if this tax is passed,” said Todd Eveland, Midwest region vice president for PepsiCo.
But supporters of the tax who packed the meeting room said it will help working and low-income families, who are disproportionately affected by the burden of health costs and chronic diseases associated with sugar-loaded drinks.
“Stand up for good health in Cook County,” said Chicago City Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, who said the area he represents is 67 percent Latino and has an “epidemic of diabetes.”
“Don’t fall for the message from Big Beverage,” he said. “They are looking out for their bottom line, we have to look out for our working families.”
A study done by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health said a sugar-sweetened drink tax in Cook County would save nearly $222 million in healthcare costs over the next decade. The study, the Childhood Obesity Intervention Cost Effectiveness Study, predicts such a drink tax in the county would cause a 7 percent drop in the incidence of diabetes when it reaches full effect in a few years and 37,000 fewer cases of obesity by the end of 2025.
The World Health Organization on Oct. 11 called on governments to tax sugary drinks as part of the global strategy to combat chronic disease and obesity.