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Tax on pop could fund nutrition education

Updated: December 8, 2011 8:06AM

Should Illinois use a pop tax to fill its coffers and maybe lighten the load of being the 23rd fattest state in the nation?

Last week, the Cook County Department of Public Health released a report titled, “Estimating the Potential Impact of Sugar-Sweetened and Other Beverage Excise Taxes in Illinois,” that says a tax that increased prices enough would sharply reduce the consumption of high-calorie drinks, such as like regular soda, ready-to-drink teas and sports drinks, and have a substantial impact on the prevalence of obesity.

But the tax has to be high enough to provide a true disincentive to pouring such drinks down our throats at the rate of 620 million non-diet gallons a year.

The report estimates that even just a one-cent per ounce tax on sugary beverages — on top of Illinois’ 6.25 percent sales tax — would have generated more than $600 million in new revenues and prevented nearly 3,500 new cases of Type 2 diabetes in 2011, reducing health-care costs by more than $20 million.

Plus, it could have reduced average weight among Illinoisans by about 1.7 pounds, even when factoring offset calories, such as from skim milk instead of a full-sugar can of pop. This well-intentioned idea needs work. To start, one or two pennies per ounce isn’t going to keep anyone from doing the Dew, if that’s what they like to do. A nickel might give one pause, however.

But the real problem with this sort of plan is that combatting a public health crisis should not be tied to a program to resuscitate the general revenue fund.

If you care primarily about raising money for our indebted state, then taxing sugary drinks might make some sense. Soft drinks are not necessities, after all. And in that scenario, any health benefits would be mere happy consequence. But, unfortunately, our state is in a double crisis. We have no money and our residents — especially the low-income ones who are most likely to use food stamps or publicly financed health care — are overweight and, in many cases, suffer from obesity-related diseases.

Statistics from 2009 say 64.5 percent of Illinois adults are obese or overweight, and kids are doing no better. In 2007, more than one in three children ages 10 through 17 were overweight or obese.

Any set of tax incentives and disincentives designed to address our health crisis — and there is no question it is a deadly epidemic — would have to be independent of the need to shore up Illinois’ budget.

Just imagine a tax on all junky beverages combined with tax breaks on, say, fruit, vegetables or whole grain foods. Impose that tax as well on diet drinks, which pack no calories but are far from being nutritious and may negatively affect taste perception and bone density.

And imagine that the new revenue would not be used to fix pension shortfalls or to repair roads but to fund some hard-core, long-term nutrition education for — just as an example — anyone on any kind of public assistance and all Illinois school children.

A pernicious public health problem like obesity — with its myriad issues including poverty, lack of nutritional awareness, peer pressure, food insecurity and food deserts, lack of safe places to exercise and regional food preferences — can’t be solved by something as simplistic as a stand-alone sugary drink tax.

Still, many of the state’s budget problems would be alleviated if more Illinois residents were healthy and able-bodied and led nutritionally balanced lives.

We really should seriously consider a tax or other methods to improve physical health in Illinois, and let the fiscal benefits follow.

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