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Sugar-drink tax to get Chicagoans, budget in shape?

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Updated: March 18, 2012 8:18AM

Chicago consumers of soda pop, energy drinks and other sugary beverages should pay a tax — anywhere from 15 to 30 cents a container to a penny an ounce — to curb soaring obesity rates, an influential alderman said Thursday.

Ald. George Cardenas (12th), chairman of the City Council’s Health Committee, says it’s time to hit people where it hurts — in the wallet — to discourage them from guzzling high-calorie drinks that pack on the pounds.

At Wednesday’s City Council meeting, Cardenas introduced a resolution calling for hearings on the “effect of sugar beverages on obesity” and on the “implications of imposing higher sales taxes on such beverages.”

Cardenas said he plans to take testimony from medical experts, then bring the hammer down sometime this spring — by proposing a tax large enough to discourage consumption.

Asked how much that might be, Cardenas initially talked about a penny an ounce. That would amount to 64-cents on a Double Gulp sold at 7-Eleven stores — enough to make guzzlers of those over-sized drinks choke.

His resolution even states, “Adding a penny-per-ounce tax on any beverage with added sugar could not only reduce obesity and its accompanying high health care costs, but also generate much-needed revenue.”

Questioned further about the burden that would impose, Cardenas lowered his sights to a lesser amount still high enough to discourage consumption.

“I’m contemplating something that will work. Five cents wasn’t enough to discourage people from drinking bottled water. Maybe we need to make it 10 cents, 15 cents or 30 cents. Or it could be per ounce. But, we need to do something,” said Cardenas, the father of Chicago’s bottled water tax.

“We’ve taken high-sugar content beverages out of the public schools. The next step is to tax them. We have to stem this epidemic. It’s not good for the city or society to have these high rates of obesity. Is that a Big Brother thing? Someone can make the case. I don’t think you tell people what to drink and not to drink. But, you steer people. You try, anyway.”

David Vite, president of the Illinois Retail Merchant’s Association, denounced the sugary-drink tax as a “terrible idea” that would deprive Chicago consumers of the choices they hold dear.

“This is about regulating peoples’ choices so they can have more money to spend to make government bigger and more pervasive in our lives,” said Vite, who challenged Chicago’s bottled water tax only to have the nickel-a-bottle tax upheld by the courts.

Pressed on what should be done to curb the obesity epidemic driving up health care costs, Vite said, “How about education? Isn’t it nice what Mrs. [Michelle] Obama is doing talking about exercising every day and eating the right foods. She’s not talking about a tax. She’s talking about helping people make better choices. Let’s play 30 [minutes] every day. Let’s eat fruits and vegetables, which is why you see her out in her garden.”

Vite noted that companies that manufacture and distribute sugary drinks are located in Chicago, generating “thousands” of local jobs.

“People have the right to eat and drink things that are not good for them — or not. They can choose what they want to eat and drink. Government shouldn’t be in that business,” he said.

Vite then made an argument that’s been used to describe Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to use red-light cameras and cameras concealed in vans to catch motorists speeding near schools and parks.

“This is about money. It’s not about protecting people,” he said.

The resolution introduced by Cardenas states that 33 states already impose a sales tax on sugary beverages and that six slap on “excise taxes in addition to a sales tax.”

According to the National Policy and Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity, one third of U.S. children are either overweight or obese, in part because they consume too many sugar-sweetened beverages.

The obesity rate across the nation has more than doubled over the last 30 years. For kids between the ages of six and eleven, it’s quadrupled over the last 40 years, the group states.

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