ONTIVEROS: I think I miss that soda pop tax

SHARE ONTIVEROS: I think I miss that soda pop tax
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Back in September, opponents of the soda tax held a rally outside the Thompson Center. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

The ticket made me think maybe we were too hasty in axing that Cook County pop tax.

When the penny-an-ounce sweetened beverage tax was implemented, I didn’t like it. Why my drink? It wasn’t sugar-sweetened, but rather calorie-free and artificially sweetened. So I joined the crowd and figured out a way to sidestep the tax.

I made a run for the Indiana border and stocked up on my favorite soda. Oh, I thought I was so clever, getting three eight-packs in Northwest Indiana. My enthusiasm for sticking it to The Man dimmed when an automated speeding ticket arrived at my home. Instead of paying a $2.88 sweetened beverage tax, I paid a $100 ticket.

Not so clever after all.

OPINION

You know what would have happened if that tax had continued? I would have grown tired of trekking to Indiana. Others would have too. I would have remembered that ticket and stayed home.

I would have bought pop in Chicago or cut back. Most likely, I would have done the latter — cut back — because that penny an ounce was awfully harsh. Over time, that’s exactly what a lot of others would have done as well.

That would have been a good thing.

The message about the health benefits of cutting back on sugar got tangled with the fact Cook County has budget woes. The real aim of the tax, skeptics said, was to shore up the county’s finances. Also, people couldn’t understand why artificially sweetened drinks were being taxed but not sugary coffees. The health argument felt disingenuous.

But going after sugar consumption has real merits. For too long we thought fat was the enemy, but new studies have shown that it’s sugar and other carbohydrates doing a number on our waistlines and health. You’ve probably heard the figure that two-thirds of Americans are overweight. In Cook County, it’s some 25 percent of adults, according to recent figures from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. So it’s not like we’re a place that couldn’t benefit from lifestyle changes to improve health.

To combat the problem, we have to do something, and probably something drastic. Which is where putting a heavy tax on sweetened drinks comes in. Policy intervention could reduce the attractiveness of sweetened drinks, just as it did for cigarettes.

The higher the taxes on cigarettes, the more people quit. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows only 15 percent of the U.S. population smokes today. Just 50 years ago, more than 40 percent of U.S. adults were smokers. Public campaigns on the ill effects of smoking motivated some to quit, but ever-increasing taxes played a pivotal role.

The beverage industry feels it was singled out, but I think it was just among the first to be targeted, and for good reason. The numbers show that soda consumption on the wane; a Fortune magazine article illustrated how it’s at a 30-year low. People are starting to get the message about sugar and cutting back by drinking less soda, which, admit it, has zero nutritional value. Taxes on sweetened beverages could be the impetus to more people switching beverage choices.

Here’s what I think would have happened if the soda tax had continued. All of us, eventually, would be drinking fewer sweetened drinks. (Actually, it wouldn’t hurt me to drink fewer artificially sweetened drinks; observational studies link them to weight gain.) We would have substituted water, unsweetened teas and other unsweetened treats. We would have adjusted.

Eventually, we might have tackled other problem areas: those sugar-laden coffees, snack foods and the like. Lots of future initiatives might have followed the county’s first move.

But now the tax is gone, and with it a good opportunity to improve our health.

Email: sueontiveros.cst@gmail.com

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.

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