Black America, there are two health facts we should get straight. First, by demographics, we’re the most disproportionately dependent (pdf) on the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program—or, as SNAP is more commonly known, food stamps.
Second, soda is not our friend. And that goes for the beverage, the companies that make it and organizations like the American Beverage Association, which is currently backing a fight against a soda tax in Cook County, Ill.
You might have heard about the tax, since it was trending Friday. The long and short of it is that Illinois is broke. This isn’t news. Illinois has had bills due for years, about $15 billion worth. The state is also on the hook for $199 billion in public retirement benefits and is about $119 billion short. In fact, it may become the first state whose credit is rated as a junk bond.
The soda tax isn’t isn’t news, either. The Board of Cook County (which includes Chicago) has been wrangling with it for months. With just about every other tax already hiked, the state is desperately looking for some way to help balance the books. Luckily, they found a broadly popular option in the form of taxing sugary drinks.
Originally, at a penny per ounce, the county’s tax was expected to rake in about $224 million a year. Analysis of a hypothetical statewide penny-per-ounce tax predicted that it would raise $561 million a year. The study also estimated that over 10 years, the tax would prevent 116,000 cases of obesity and would lower health care costs around $733 million as it dissuaded people from buying sugary drinks.
The soda tax mimics similar sin taxes—taxes on habits that lower life expectancy, incur health risks and raise health care costs. Taxes on soda have been adopted in Mexico and several U.S. cities: Philadelphia; San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland, Calif.; Boulder, Colo.; and Seattle. Although more research is needed to determine exactly what changes the tax will have on customer behavior, our best picture, courtesy of a study of Berkeley’s tax, suggests that the price of sugary drinks rose by 8 percent, and consumption fell by 21 percent.
But speaking of falling, Cook County’s proposed tax hit a stumbling block when the board found out that people on food stamps, around 900,000 in all, would get a pass on the tax. Federal law prevents state and local taxes from being applied to SNAP. For the most part, this has been a reliable guideline, but here its logic breaks down.
Let’s take a tally: Who is the largest group of soda consumers in proportion to their percentage of the population? Black people. What demographic is most disproportionately reliant on SNAP? Black people. Which privileged coterie is most subject to the kind of obesity and diet-related health issues that soda consumption has been linked to? Blacks and Hispanics.
The plan’s implementation was halted until July 12 by a judge last week—based on a claim filed by food businesses backed by the American Beverage Association that if the tax is found unconstitutional, there is no system in place for getting a refund.
That argument, however, isn’t particularly strong. And with Illinois politics being Illinois politics, we can probably expect more delays, but some version of this tax is likely to be passed. Even sans nearly a million SNAP users, the soda tax is still estimated to raise around $200 million a year. And although soda companies defeated 40 other attempts to implement soda taxes around the country, the impetus is still growing for sugar-rich drinks to be taxed across the board.
Nevertheless, without reform, the SNAP exemption is a glaring loophole for a plan whose highest return in health improvement would be among poor Americans—one that shortchanges not only black people but also Hispanic and broke white people.
Granted, there are some serious questions regarding whether or not a soda tax is the right way to reduce the public health risk of sugary drinks. For one, “soda tax” is a little misleading and arbitrary. Sodas and sweetened teas alike are subject to the tax, but that venti vanilla bean frappe cinnamon dolced so hard you can get high off the fructose? Nope. Fruity additives for alcoholic drinks, on the other hand, are still subject—which raises alarming questions for some business owners.
Many eateries have decried the measure, saying that for customers closer to Indiana, some are bound to drive just a few miles over the state line. And while it’s hard to get figures on exactly what percentage of businesses that would undermine, it’s a safe assumption that for some franchises and bars where someone could cross a state line to get the same fix but cheaper, this could be an issue.
Moreover, soda consumption in the U.S. has dropped by a fourth in the last 15 years. There is legitimate debate as to whether or not it would be more productive to focus more on educational outreach programs about healthy eating than on fighting back against beverage-industry giants like Pepsi or Coca-Cola. Nonetheless, such programs could be implemented alongside a soda tax.
Overall, though, taxing carbonated diabetes would extend lives and improve health, and it’s likely that the next few years will see a wave of new taxes placed on sugary drinks that will cultivate healthier diet habits for a generation to come. It would just be nice if black single mothers and children on food stamps had a sip of the good life, too.
But to paraphrase Nas, life is sweet and then you die (of heart disease).