Chicago pushes for sugar tax to curb sweet tooth, raise cash

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Photo courtesy of Marlith.

Photo courtesy of Marlith.

With a laundry list of concerns on the intake of sugary drinks as well as a shortage in revenue, Chicago has begun an effort to severely tax these products.

While there is a three percent tax on sugary beverages in Cook County, the new city tax, proposed by Ald. George Cardenas (12th Ward), would be a bit heavier handed.

The proposed increase is about a penny per ounce, or just about a 17 percent total tax on drinks with 10 grams or more of added artificial sugar. Only 12 oz. drinks would qualify. Drinks with artificially added sugar have been flagged as a major American health issue, leading to countless diseases such as diabetes, coronary infections, obesity and overall poor health.

“We’re trying to make the healthy choice the default choice,” said Karen Larimer, DePaul professor and soon-to-be the President of the American Heart Association’s Chicago branch.

“We’re not saying get rid of them, people can still drink their charged-up drinks if they chose. But based on what we know they do to the human body, we believe they’ve earned a little bit of tax.”

Larimer, a Vanderbilt graduate and a professor of Health Promotions for Families and Communities gave her testimony last week during a committee meeting with City Council that gave this tax traction.

She cited the education of the city’s youth as the motivation she needed to get behind the tax. Informing them of the harms of these drinks, and finding ways to provide alternatives. Creating better habits, and giving young people the means to make conscious health decisions.

According to the Center of Disease Control, about 70 percent of college students drink a sugar sweetened beverage every day.

“I drink 4 to 5 Sprites a week,” sophomore David Key, who lives in Lincoln Park said. “I’ve got a 12-pack at home actually. I like to think I’m a pretty fit guy, and I know there’s a ton of garbage in these things. It’s just my go to drink.”

When asked if he’ll spend an extra few bucks for that same 12 pack of Sprite if the tax was implemented, Key gave it some thought. That 12 pack of Sprite would increase more than $2 with this tax, turning that $6 12 pack in an $8 one.

“I’m not so sure, I may be too far gone, but who knows. I feel like people unconsciously pay more for certain things just because they don’t see whatever tax is on it, you know how it is, man. Everything is taxed.”

A unique factor to the sugar sweetened tax is that it will be displayed on each product that is taxed. The retail number will be visible, and if the beverage exceeds the artificially sweetened limit (which is typically an excess amount of high fructose corn syrup) the tax will be applied and the actual price will be on the product for consumers to read. The mental impact of seeing the price go up that much is what those behind the tax are hoping for. Making logical, financial based decisions simply based on what price they see will more than likely be the difference for many college students who may already be strapped for cash.

Mainstream media has tabbed the bill as lousy, and don’t think it has much chance. The Chicago Tribune headline following the council meeting read, “Chicago soda tax fizzles out at City Hall.”

Some students believe the contrary.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if this tax picks up some real support,” business major and DePaul junior Sarah Walden said.

“This area is already so good when it comes forward thinking and public health. (E-cigarettes) are being banned in plenty of places, tobacco is so expensive, and you can’t buy cigarettes anywhere inside a public building. These road blocks in convenience have had an impact.”

In 2008, 21 percent of adults smoked cigarettes in Illinois. Since then, a series of taxes have seen the price spike to what it is now, roughly $13 a pack in Cook County. Over that span, the number of adults who smoke has dropped almost six percent, according to the Tobacco Burden study performed by the Illinois Department of Public Health.

These kind of results are what the American Heart Association, and millions of other health advocates, want to see with the sugar sweetened beverage tax.

“It really is about exposing the younger generations to what are currently the alternatives,” Dr. Larimer emphasized. “DePaul is an extremely conscious University. It won’t happen overnight, but the tide will begin to shift if it hasn’t started already.”