Five or 10 years from now, Americans will look at cheap, sugary drinks the way they now look at smoking on airplanes and in restaurants — as a really bad idea.
Cook County, having recently implemented a tax on sweetened beverages, is at the forefront of this movement to encourage people to transition to healthier drinks. But the county’s leadership role is in jeopardy. The beverage industry and retailers are pushing hard to repeal this tax. We can’t think of a worse idea.
New taxes are rarely embraced, and we understand this one is no different. But taxes are necessary for government to support the health and welfare of its residents. More than 87 percent of Cook County’s budget goes to just that — health care, public health and public safety. The revenue from this tax pays for the nurses and doctors who provide health care services to hundreds of thousands of county residents; public defenders who make sure thousands of youth and adults are represented at trial; and prosecutors who bring criminals to justice. The Cook County Department of Public Health helps make sure that our residents have safe water and food, and that our communities foster long-term health.
At a time when our city is plagued by relentless shootings, revenue from this tax also will support violence prevention and initiatives to help young adults get on their feet and stay out of jail. Programs like the county’s “Career Launch” and “Opportunity Works” provide career exploration, job training, placement and support to help justice-involved youth turn their lives around.
The argument being made over and over again by opponents is that this tax is all about money, and not about health. Of course it’s about funding government resources — what tax isn’t? If we take away that money, we lose critical services, as we saw when the county prepared to lay off criminal justice staff when the tax was delayed. This tax is also about health — taxing a product that contributes to disease, instead of raising property taxes, for instance.
This tax not only will generate desperately needed revenue, it will save the county money in the long run. U.S. health organizations from the American Medical Association to the American Heart Association have called for sugary drink taxes to help curb the national epidemics of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. This is not a trivial matter when we consider that obesity-related diseases cost the U.S. health care system $190 billion annually. Having just gone through a brutal debate at the federal level propelled by the high cost of health care, addressing an issue that drives 21 percent of medical spending is critical.
The sweetened beverage tax will reduce the burden of these chronic illnesses and their related health care costs — many of which are swallowed by taxpayers through the county health care system. Whether you drink sugary beverages or not, you are already paying for the health care costs of those who do through the taxes you pay now.
County commissioners took a courageous stand when they passed this ordinance. We urge them to hold firm and prevent the loss of essential services for our communities by maintaining the sweetened beverage tax.
Elissa Bassler is CEO of the Illinois Public Health Institute and executive director of the Illinois Alliance to Prevent Obesity.
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