Cook County board considering tax on sugary drinks

Nora Shelly, City Editor

Your can of soda may cost a little bit more next year, if the Cook County Board of Commissioners follows through on a proposal to tax sugary drinks.

Board President Toni Preckwinkle introduced the proposal on Thursday as part of her fiscal year 2017 budget recommendation presentation. The ordinance would impose a one-cent tax on every ounce of sweetened beverages. The revenue would help cover a $74.6 million deficit for the year.

Preckwinkle called the tax a “difficult but necessary choice” during her budget presentation.

“This is not a grocery tax,” Preckwinkle said. “We are targeting beverages with high quantities of sugar and artificial sweetener, such as carbonated soft drinks, sports drinks and energy drinks.”

Preckwinkle said that if the tax was not implemented, “it would mean a thousand fewer positions in the criminal justice system,” which would include public defenders or sheriff’s deputies.

The revenue will also help fund public safety initiatives, infrastructure investment and economic development, Preckwinkle said.

The proposed ordinance would apply to any non-alcoholic beverage that is either carbonated or non-carbonated and contains sweetener, whether it is caloric or noncaloric. The tax would apply to purchases by consumers, rather than distributors.

Drinks not included in the potential tax would be weight loss drinks, infant formula or drinks that are 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice.

The tax is intended to both raise money and improve public health, Preckwinkle said.

The World Health Organization released a report on Tuesday that encouraged the use of such a tax. A sugary drink tax typically leads to lower consumption, according to the news release. Decreased consumption also can reduce obesity, type 2 diabetes and tooth decay.

A tax on sugary drinks can have a threefold benefit, said Elissa Bassler, CEO of the Illinois Public Health Institute. Apart from limiting consumption, money raised from the tax could go through diabetes prevention and other health initiatives, Bassler said.

“Sugary drinks we know are really unhealthy,” she said. “You can improve quality of life and reduce healthcare costs because people are healthier.”

Although some feels the beverage tax would improve the public health of Cook County, some feel it would hurt local businesses.

The No Cook County Beverage Tax Coalition is a group of businesses and citizens who feel the tax could lead to job losses for some.

“The last thing we need is to implement regressive policies that will slow growth, drive business out of the city and force businesses to raise prices,” said Tanya Triche, who is a member of the coalition and legal counsel for the Illinois Retail Merchants Association in a news release.

But Karen Larimer, president of the Metro Chicago Board of the American Heart Association, said during Monday’s meeting she has seen residents in the area’s most vulnerable communities suffer from “catastrophic” rates of stroke, heart attack, diabetes and cancer — diseases that are all linked to high consumption of too much sugar.

A tax on sugary drinks may help limit those incidents, she said.

“We could improve the health of Cook County residents and reduce the burden on all county taxpayers….(who) are the ones ultimately saddled with the cost associated with chronic disease,” she said.

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