SPRINGFIELD — Even with the backing of several major medical groups, supporters of a proposed soft drink tax say their legislation faces a serious uphill battle.
Their plan would add a penny-per-ounce excise tax on any sugar-sweetened beverages sold in sealed containers and would use the estimated $600 million in additional revenue to fund health services, education and an expansion of Medicaid's prevention services and dental care.
One of the measure's sponsors, state Sen. Mattie Hunter, D-Chicago, said the proposal will be "very difficult to pass" because of resistance from consumers and the state's business community.
"People will pay a little more," she said. "It's true. But that's just to offset the burden of those beverages in terms of health and health care costs here in Illinois."
American Heart Association spokesman Mark Peysakhovich said the legislation is just the first step in what likely will be a very lengthy fight.
"We're not kidding ourselves," he said. "This is the first year of a significant campaign. I compare this quite a bit to our work on tobacco taxes. The industry has the dream team.
"It's going to take time to get the message across, but we feel that the public will finally support us. Anybody playing defense on this issue has already lost."
The Illinois Alliance to Prevent Obesity reports that one in three children in Illinois is obese, and nearly two in three adults are overweight.
The group predicts that in one year, the tax would reduce obesity among children by 9.3 percent and obesity among adults by 5.2 percent. It estimates that these changes would come with more than $150 million in savings on obesity-related health care costs.
"We know our communities are suffering from obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer," state Rep. Robyn Gabel, D-Chicago, said. "It's critically important to address these health concerns and generate revenue to invest in solutions to these complex problems ... We can't afford not to pass this bill."
Mark Denzler, vice president of the Illinois Manufacturers' Association, part of the Illinois Coalition Against Beverage Taxes, said the economic cost of the tax would be too high.
He argued that it would kill jobs for farmers, corn processors, packagers and delivery drivers in the state, because of reduced soda consumption.
But new research from the University of Illinois at Chicago says that soda taxes actually increase private- and public-sector employment.
The study shows that a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages would shift consumer demand toward non-sugar-sweetened products, rather than eliminating it altogether.
Additionally, the report says the increased tax revenue allows governments to spend more, creating new job opportunities in the public sector.
The researchers estimate that a 20 percent tax on sugar-sweetened beverages would create 4,509 new jobs in Illinois.
Denzler called the study "completely flawed" and said consumers would simply go across state lines to get soda.
"You already have lower rates for cigarettes and gasoline in Missouri, Indiana and Wisconsin," he said. "If you increase the price of a case of soda by nearly three dollars, you're going to have Illinois consumers going across state lines to buy the product."
Hunter argued that soda's health impact on the poor is more important than the possibility of higher soda prices in the state.
"I'll tell you what hurts poor people," she said. "The extra marketing that these drinks use in poor and minority communities — that's what hurts us. The extra deaths from heart disease in poor communities, the lack of safe places to exercise and eat in poor communities, the cuts in Medicaid."
The legislation is House Bill 5690 and Senate Bill 3524.