CITY HALL — Calling it a health issue, not a belt-tightening, budget-balancing new tax, aldermen on Wednesday mulled charging a penny an ounce on drinks with sugar.
"This is a subject-matter hearing only, and we will not be taking a vote at this time," said Ald. George Cardenas (12th), chairman of the Health Committee weighing the matter, at the start of Wednesday's meeting. Yet he also insisted it was a health issue, not a financial issue.
"It's not a budget hearing. This is a Health Committee hearing," Cardenas said. "We're here to talk about health and the impact of sugar on the body and what it does to you."
Cardenas is also lead sponsor of the proposed ordinance. It begins with a preamble citing state obesity statistics, including a 2012 study that found that 28 percent of Illinois adults were considered obese, with even higher rates among African-Americans (40.5 percent) and Hispanics (31.2 percent).
It adds that 19 percent of Illinois children are obese, ninth-worst in the nation, and says, "Numerous studies have established a link between obesity and consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages such as soft drinks, energy drinks, sweet teas and sports drinks."
It suggests the tax could cut consumption 23.5 percent, with corresponding drops in the obesity rate of 5.2 percent among adults and 9.3 percent among youths.
The tax would exempt natural juices, milks, coffees, teas and waters made without additional sweeteners, as well as no-calorie diet sweeteners and infant formulas.
"My whole purpose," Cardenas said, "is really to talk about health."
Others, however, begged to differ. Tanya Triche, spokeswoman for the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, called it "an attempt to raise prices" and an inefficient, ineffective, "regressive" way to attack the health issue.
Sam Toia, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association, said it would "nickel-and-dime restaurants out of business" and "ultimately reduce jobs."
"We know that this is about revenue," said Yolanda Deanda, executive director of the East Side Chamber of Commerce. She argued, "It's our lifestyles that are reasons for obesity and diabetes."
Former city attorney Mara Georges, speaking for the American Beverage Association, said the proposed ordinance "exceeds the authority" of the city as a taxing body. "This tax will fail when met with a legal challenge," she added.
Cardenas said the Law Department was exploring the possible tax, but was "not prepared to issue a statement at this time."
Cardenas dismissed those other concerns, however, citing similar arguments made against the smoking ban and a tax on bottled waters, both of which have proved to be successful. Ald. Harry Osterman (48th) echoed that, challenging Triche when she said the city had 20 years of failure at trying to change behavior through taxation. Osterman too pointed to taxes on tobacco.
Yet Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), owner of the Ann Sather restaurants, was receptive to arguments about the impact on merchants, saying, "We're really pricing ourselves out of the middle class."
Cardenas has estimated it could bring in $134 million a year, not even counting the expected savings in medical treatment with improved health. Yet he insisted that Wednesday's hearing was about health, and not about finding alternatives to a proposed fee on garbage collection, which has also been mentioned as a revenue generator as the city seeks to balance a budget to be proposed later this month by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Elissa Bassler, chief executive officer of the Illinois Public Health Institute, said, "There is no silver bullet" to end obesity and diabetes. Yet she defended the proposed tax, while insisting the $134 million, if actually produced, should be plowed back into health education and prevention to actually have the desired impact.
The hearing ended with the matter held in committee, although it could be readily revived if made part of Emanuel's proposed 2016 budget to be released Sept. 22.
"I think we heard significant testimony on both sides," Cardenas said.
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