Taxing Sin or Bringing the Poor to HEAL?

by Leonard Pierce

The Illinois Public Health Institute’s Illinois Alliance to Prevent Obesity is currently backing House Bill 2667, known as the HEAL (Healthy Eating, Active Living) Act. The bill would impose a tax of a penny per ounce on soda and other sugary drinks, including powders, syrups, and beverages sold at retail level. The tax would be imposed on distributors, and the majority of funds would be earmarked for the Illinois Wellness Fund.

On the surface, this sounds like a win all around; distributors of unhealthful beverages have to pay more, and a blow is struck against what is indisputably a leading cause of obesity and diabetes. That’s one reason the HEAL Act is so popular with liberals, and is attracting a wide range of sponsors from both sides of the aisle. Of course, any time Republicans and Democrats agree on something, that’s cause to be suspicious; it usually means the working class is about to get it in the neck. And, unfortunately, the HEAL Act is no exception.

So-called “soda taxes” are picking up steam across the country as states and municipalities look for ways to make up public health revenue lost to tax cuts and austerity measures. They tend to be extremely regressive – that is, they impact the poor, who cannot afford to pay them, much more than they do the rich. While the HEAL Act places the tax burden on distributors, they’re likely to pass the cost on to consumers. The money raised will be supervised by an advisory council, the make-up of which is unclear, as is its answerability to the public. It exempts fruit juices, many of which have as many sugar calories as sodas, and its wording makes it unclear if it will impact coffee drinks – sugar bombs favored by the wealthier classes, and almost always let off the hook by such legislation.

Aside from these loopholes, and the regressive nature of such ‘sin taxes’ (of which Illinois already has far too many), there is also an element of moral scolding in bills like the HEAL Act. They suggest that the health problems of the poor are caused by their failure to make ‘good choices’, rather than that they tend to be forced into bad choices by poverty, deprivation, and a lack of better options. Working people eat and drink what is affordable, and programs that force them to pay more for soda and junk food just punish them for taking the path of least resistance to their economic realities.

Of course, as socialists, we must also consider the fact that legislation like the HEAL Act also fails to address the root causes of the ills they claim to want to cure. Poor people don’t get addicted to soda because of some inherent vice; they get addicted to it because it’s literally addictive, and because it’s cheap, readily available everywhere, and forced into their consciousness non-stop by advertising. Big corporations get rich off the poor getting hooked on sugary drinks, and now we want to make the poor pay for it? Why not tax the soda companies themselves, or better yet, place a general tax on the manufacture of sugar?

We know the answer to that: money. Soda corporations are exactly the kinds of big business that both Democrats and Republicans are beholden to, and our politicians will do anything to avoid offending them. In fact, we give them tax breaks at every opportunity. This is the same reason we don’t just tax sugar: the federal government massively subsidizes the sugar industry, deepening the problem of addiction and disease in order to protect private profit. Any sensible approach to the health outcomes caused by sugary drinks would begin with making the rich who benefit from their manufacture start paying their fair share of taxes, and end with the establishment of universal health care rather than funneling more money into a dysfunctional for-profit system that already fails millions of people in Illinois and elsewhere.

HB 2667 is currently sine die in the House, meaning it is not scheduled for further action. It may die there. But such measures, combining as they do regressive taxation, moral scolding, and austerity politics, are increasingly popular as state governments pretend to be broke rather than stuck having to scrape by without all the revenue that would come from fair taxation of corporations and the rich. If it manages to resurface, the DSA should oppose it, as we should all such calls to make the poor pay for the consequences forced on them by the rich.

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Chicago Democratic Socialists of America

The Chicago Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, 3411 W. Diversey, Suite 7, Chicago, IL 60647

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