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Could Illinois be 1st state to tax sugary drinks?

PHOTO: Sugary drinks could be taxed under a bill reintroduced in Springfield.  | MARIO TAMA~GETTY IMAGES

The Healthy Eating and Active Living Act that been proposed for the State of Illinois got a boost last week when it was endorsed by some 140+ pediatric physicians.

Those endorsing it include pediatricians, the chairs from the state’s academic medical centers, those on medical school faculty and researchers. They understand the importance of improving the food and beverage choices of children; right now, one in three children in Illinois is considered overweight or obese, according to the Illinois chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

At a time when Illinois is facing draconian cuts due to the financial mess the state is in, the HEAL Act proposes a way to bring new funds into state coffers. Spearheaded by the Illinois Alliance to Prevent Obesity, the HEAL Act proposes to put a tax of a penny an ounce on sugary drinks. What is its definition of a sugary drink? Any that has more than 5 grams of sugar per 12 ounces. (People will expect that that includes sugared sodas, but I think they’ll be surprised, if this measure passes, how many “energy” drinks, iced packaged coffees and “sports” beverages this will include. I think many of us don’t realize how much sugar we ingest via drinks. But I digress.)

The HEAL Act was reintroduced by state Sen. Mattie Hunter (D-3rd) and state Rep. Robyn Gabel (D-18th). What I like about it is that the monies raised would be earmarked for programs that promote eating well and exercise. The Alliance projects that the bill could bring the state some $600 million, which would go equally to Medicaid and community health programs across the state that work to lower rates of heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

A poll commissioned by the Alliance shows 65 percent of Illinois voters back the idea of raising funds for Medicaid and community prevention programs by a tax on sugary drinks. Read more here.

More and more we’ve come to realize that it’s sugar, and not fat, that may be at the root of our nation’s serious problem when it comes to weight. This tax could be the impetus for some to give up sugary drinks. Whenever a tax increase hits kent cigarettes, for example, there are those who kick the habit rather than spend more money. If this bill were to become law, that could happen with sugary drinks, too.

If Illinois were to pass this tax, it would be the first state in the country to do so. Berkeley, Calif., became the first city to tax sugary drinks last fall.

Ask your pediatrician if he or she is on the list; if not, you might want to ask why not. And it wouldn’t hurt to ask your state legislators where they stand on the HEAL Law.