Chicago’s soda tax debate bubbles over

Soda Tax

By Talia Beechick

Sweetened beverage sales decreased in Mexico by 12 percent after the country added an extra tax for the products, reigniting the debate in Chicago on the proposed “soda tax” before the City Council.

Mexico’s tax on sugar-sweetened drinks also spurred increased sales of untaxed beverages such as bottled water, according to a study released earlier this month conducted by researchers in Mexico and the U.S.

“The tax is the best alternative to decreasing sugar consumption while still enabling people a sugary treat,” said Alderman George Cardenas (12th), who has been advocating for a sales tax on sugar-sweetened beverages in Chicago since 2012. “The tax is not going to stop all residents from consuming sugar, but it is a more conscious-laden choice at a higher price.”

Not everyone agrees. In response to Cardenas’ proposal, the Illinois Beverage Association formed the Chicago Coalition Against Beverage Taxes, an initiative made up of citizens, businesses and community organizations who argue the tax would raise costs for working class families and lead to job cuts.

“The tax is just a money grab for the city government to fix the budget,” the coalition wrote on their website. “What’s more, local businesses, like restaurants and grocery stores, will also take a hit. Chicago can’t afford more job losses.”

Published in the British Medical Journal, the recent Mexico study examined 6,253 households in 53 cities across the country. It found that in 2014, the average urban Mexican purchased 4.2 fewer liters of taxed beverages than expected without the tax. In addition, untaxed beverages saw a 4 percent increase in sales, which translates to the purchase of 12.8 more liters of untaxed beverages by the average urban Mexican.

Study researcher Shu Wen Ng, a global public health expert, emphasized that Mexico’s model featured an excise tax, rather than Chicago’s proposed sales tax. The sales tax is added to the cost at checkout, which may not sway consumers’ behavior as effectively.

“The Mexico case is of an excise tax, which is levied on distributors and manufacturers, rather than sales taxes that, in the U.S., won’t be seen at the shelf and thus might not affect consumer choices,” Ng said. “To try to influence purchase decisions, excise taxes are the way to go.”

The study in Mexico was released just one day before the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services announced new dietary guidelines for Americans. Updated every five years since 1980, these guidelines have largely focused on encouraging Americans to eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean meat.

“The dietary guidelines are a goal for individuals and their families to consume a healthy, nutritionally adequate diet,” said Erin Utz, a registered dietician at Northwestern Medicine’s Center for Lifestyle Medicine. “I agree with the latest dietary guidelines. They focus more on healthy food groups versus individual nutrients and healthy eating patterns.”

This was the first year, however, the guidelines addressed added sugars, recommending they make up less than 10 percent of Americans’ diets.

Sources of added sugar in the U.S. population by percentage

[field name=”addedsugar”]

Nearly half of the sources of added sugar for American consumers come from beverages. Source: (Talia Beechick/MEDILL)

“I agree with the limit on added sugar,” Utz said. “Too much added sugar in your diet can lead to excess calories, weight gain, increases in blood sugar and worsened chronic disease.” Utz listed the major sources of added sugar in Americans’ diet, which include cereals, cakes, cookies, and, you guessed it, sweetened drinks.

“Too much sugar could lead to health complications, such as increased belly fat that may put one at risk for diabetes and heart disease,” echoed registered dietician Lauri Wright, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

“Twenty ounces of sweetened soda adds 240 calories and has no vitamins, minerals or protein,” Wright said. “Often people will drink soda instead of a healthier drink such as low-fat milk and lose out on important nutrients such as calcium and protein.”

Cardenas’ proposed soda tax aims to deter Chicago residents from choosing the can of pop over the carton of low-fat milk by charging a penny-per-ounce for taxed beverages. This would mean a 72-cent tax on a six-pack of 12-ounce cans, while a 24-can case of soda would jump $2.88 due to the tax.

2010 per capita beverage consumption in the U.S.

Sugar consumption chart
The average American consumed almost 50 gallons of soda in 2010. Source: Beverage Marketing Corporation (Talia Beechick/MEDILL)

“Healthier lifestyles should not be viewed as a hindrance to residents or businesses,” Cardenas said. “Businesses may view the tax as an economic misfortune, yet they need to be responsible for what they provide for residents. The negative backlash is typical of the alcohol and tobacco taxes which have both proven to be successful for healthier lifestyles.”

Utz supported government encouragement of healthier lifestyles, and compared measures to reduce sugar consumption to smoking regulations, a successful catalyst in reducing smoking rates.

“Local and federal guidelines should be implemented to guide individuals to healthier eating patterns,” Utz said. “Healthier foods should be less expensive and therefore it would be an incentive for people to purchase these foods that are good for them.”

Wright, however, seemed uncertain a tax would provide the best results.

“Though it seems like an effective plan to tax sugary drinks, studies have been mixed on whether it actually works,” Wright said. “Other ways of supporting this change may include more availability of water and milk rather than sodas in vending machines.”

Chicago residents such as Bimala Gossi, a cashier at a local convenience store, said the tax isn’t right but that it wouldn’t change their behavior.

“They shouldn’t make me pay more,” Gossi said. “Coke is my favorite. I drink it every day.”

Matthew Pear, who works in banking, agreed, claiming even if the city taxed diet sodas, which are not sweetened with added sugars, his behavior would not change.

“I drink roughly six to 12 cans a day of Diet Dr. Pepper,” Pear said. “And I would drink the same amount if they doubled the price.”

Cardenas said he hopes to bring the issue to light again in the spring.

“The ordinance is being revamped through collaboration with the American Heart Association, Illinois Partnership for Health, and the Illinois African American Center for Prevention and more,” Cardenas said. “We will be working with them to create a template of success based on their extensive work throughout other cities and nationwide.”

Vending machines give the public easy access to sugar-sweetened beverages. (Talia Beechick/MEDILL)