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Column: Tax on sugary drinks could improve our health

Bill could do for obesity what cigarette tax did for smoking

Published: Tuesday, March 25, 2014 1:15 a.m. CST

A new bill titled Supporting the Healthy Eating and Active Leaving Act (HEAL) has been introduced to fight Illinois’ obesity epidemic.

House Bill 5690/Senate Bill 3524 is supported by a large number of state organizations and coalitions, including the Illinois Alliance to Prevent Obesity, Illinois Public Health Association, and Illinois Association of Public Health Administrators. The bill would place a penny-per-ounce excise tax on all beverages that contain added caloric sweeteners. Beverages with non-caloric sweeteners are not included in the tax. It is estimated that this tax would generate $600 million a year for prevention and health care.

Just as smoking and lung cancer rates have dropped since the cigarette tax was implemented, Illinois can lead the nation with a sugary beverage tax to reduce diabetes, heart disease and other chronic diseases and pay for the education and programs we need to lead healthier lives.

Sugary drinks are being targeted in this bill because of the proven harm they cause. Liquid calories don’t trigger our sense of feeling “full” and are taken in excess without being aware of it. Research shows that sugary beverages are the biggest contributor of empty calories in the American diet. From 1977 to 2001, the average American’s daily caloric intake increased by nearly 300 calories, and 43 percent of those additional calories came from additional sugary drinks. Sugary drinks are the largest source of daily calories for children age 2-18.

Everyone would still be able to choose whatever they like to drink. But now, taxpayers subsidize the cost of sugary beverages through higher health care costs. This bill would require people to pay fairly for their choices. People who consume few sugary beverages would pay very little.

Experts maintain that passage of the HEAL Act could result in the following in just 1 year’s time: a reduction in the consumption of sugary beverages by 23.5 percent, a reduction of youth obesity by 9.3 percent, a reduction of adult obesity by 5.2 percent, 3,442 fewer Illinoisans with diabetes, a reduction in the health care cost of diabetes by $20.7 million, and a reduction in obesity-related health care costs by $150 million.

Revenue from the HEAL Act would go to a variety of preventative programs to help children and families live healthier lives. The funds would be distributed across the state to support nutrition, physical activity, oral health and wellness programs, the creation of healthy communities and neighborhoods, and health care for low-income Illinoisans.

Some specific ways the funds would be used include hiring more physical education and health teachers in schools; building new sidewalks, bike lanes, and other active transportation infrastructure improvements; providing oral health education and dental sealants to children; building new community gardens or urban farms in areas with low access to healthy food; and providing nutrition education to help people eat healthier food.

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