$600 million soda tax falls flat in House committee

SHARE $600 million soda tax falls flat in House committee

SPRINGFIELD — A bid to fight obesity through taxing sweetened drinks lost its fizz Tuesday as a House committee rejected a plan that could have injected $600 million into the state treasury.

The measure, which failed by a 2-7 vote, would have charged a penny more per ounce on sweetened beverages, making a 2-liter bottle of soda cost about 67 cents more than its artificially sweetened, zero-calorie counterpart.

“I think the public policy initiative is good; I just think you’re really hitting the consumer with a substantial tax that, to me, is not consistent,” said Rep. David Harris, R-Arlington Heights, who voted against the legislation.

But state Rep. Robyn Gabel, D-Evanston, the sponsor of the sugar tax, said the difference in cost was necessary because it incentivized choosing the healthier drink.

“Obesity is epidemic in Illinois; I think we all know that and it’s actually epidemic in the country on whole,” she said. “This is an act to try to reverse this trend and improve the health in our state.”

Nearly 28 percent of adults in Illinois are obese, according to 2012 data from the Center for Disease Control.  

Gabel said the easiest way to reduce people’s sugar intake is to target its largest source of sugar—sugar-sweetened beverages like soft drinks, sweet teas, energy drinks and sports drinks—which she said can be linked to diabetes, certain cancers and obesity. Gabel hoped the change in cost would prompt people to choose a healthier option at the supermarket.

The estimated $600 million raised from the tax would have gone to obesity-prevention initiatives like physical education, healthier food in schools, child care centers or bike and walking paths. 

But Mark Denzler, from the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association, said House Bill 397 concerned beverage retailers because the estimated drop in consumption would result in a loss of jobs. He said the tax would furthermore send Illinois residents to a neighboring state for their groceries.

“Consumers can vote with their feet,” Denzler said. “So if you raise the tax—and this is a tax increase of $ 2.88 on a case of soda—you would see Illinois consumers not necessarily changing their pattern of what they buy but changing where they buy. They’ll go across the border to Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa or Missouri.”

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