Just weeks after Chicago Ald. George Cardenas’ proposed a penny-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks, the soda industry shot back with a battery of testimonials.
They came from an industry funded group called the Chicago Coaltion Against Beverage Taxes. And among its members is the Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Omar Duque leads the chamber and says its members would be “adversely affected by the tax” because it would drive soda sales down.
But that’s exactly why Esther Sciammerella of the Chicago Hispanic Health Coalition supports a tax.
“We see the increases in obesity in children and adults in the Hispanic community, and the issue of diabetes and metabolic syndrome has become epidemic,” she said. “So we advocate drinking water, not soda.”
Duque says he recognizes that Latinos suffer from high levels of sugar-related disease. But he doesn’t think a local soda tax--that builds on sugar taxes already in place--would help.
“Our particular opposition is specifically focused around the fact that studies show that punitive taxes around this don’t solve the issue,” he said. “An excise tax on sugared beverages would drive down product sales, but it would not really push the needle to reduce obesity.”
As evidence, he cites taxes on sugary beverages in Arkansas and West Virginia, which have some of the highest obesity rates in the nation. But Elissa Bassler of the Illinois Public Health Institute--which is also backing a state soda tax to fund Medicaid--believes the comparison is inappropriate.
“The [soda] taxes in those states are much much lower and they don’t go to fund prevention programs like the proposals in Chicago and Illinois’,” she said.
The proposed city soda tax would fund health programs in Chicago Public Schools. And supporters of the state tax say it could raise $600 million for Medicaid and obesity prevention each year.
For many, soda taxes are complicated issues in low-income minority communities. According to 2013 Gallup data, whites drink sugary soda only about half as often as minorities. And those who make more than $75,000 a year are half as likely to drink regular soda as those who make less than $30,000 a year.
So Bassler concedes that the excise tax could affect the pocketbook of low-income minorities more than others.
“But we need to remember [minorities] are also disproportionately targeted by the marketers for sugary drinks,” she said. “And those are the communities that are most impacted by the health problems attributable to excess consumption of sugary drinks.”
The Chicago Coalition Against Beverage Taxes is not the first such coalition funded by the soda industry. Similar groups crop up in most places taxes are proposed. A 2013 New York Times investigation also detailed millions in soda industry funding to minority groups who would later come out vocally against soda taxes.
Duque says Coca-Cola is, and has been a dues-paying member of his organization for around 20 years. But he says that has nothing to do with his opposition to the tax.
“We are not being paid off to be part of this,” he said. “We represent businesses in our community, that hire people and have a positive impact in the communities in which they operate and their employees live. They’re telling us that they would be adversely affected by this tax. The more we can help these business to continue to operate and be profitable, the more of an impact we’re going to have on our economy.”
Still, Sciammerella of the Chicago Hispanic Health Coalition questions those priorities.
“What is the positive role of businesses who are not helping the health of the community?” she asks. “I’m pro-health and helping people to be less sick. What good are profits if they come with the consequence of increased illness in the community?”
Monica Eng is a WBEZ producer and co-host of the Chewing The Fat podcast. Follow her at@monicaeng or write to her at email@example.com