Ill. lawmaker's comment sparks child obesity debate

May 11, 2011

In a written statement released Wednesday afternoon, Cultra says his idea was "a tongue-in-cheek comment taken out of context and should not be taken seriously." But health advocates say the issue of childhood obesity deserves attention.

Illinois now ranks fourth in the nation when it comes to childhood obesity rates; one out of five children are obese and one out of three are obese or overweight. Sixty two percent of the state's adults are overweight.

As drafted, an Illinois Senate bill tackles the issue two ways. First, all distributors in Illinois would pay for a yearly permit to sell sugary drinks. Second, a one-cent tax for every ounce would be added. So a 12 ounce drink would be taxed 12 cents more.

Opponents say just targeting sweet drinks and not other foods will not solve obesity, especially for children.

"To do it piecemeal, it's not going to get there. And so most legislators agree that this is not the approch we should take," said State Senator Dave Syverson.

Supporters, however, say taxing sugary drinks would raise awareness.

"It would create incentives to purchase healthier beverages...the surgery beverage would be a little more expensive at the shelf," said Elissa Bassler, CEO, Illinois Public Health Institute.

According to the Illinois Public Health Institute, obesity costs the state $4 billion a year in health care costs which is why Bassler went to Springfield Tuesday to support the tax. The additional revenue would go towards fighting obesity. While Bassler was making her point, Sen. Cultra threw out the idea of taking the tax deduction away for parents with obese kids.

Bessler says access to healthy food, exercise and changing the way food is marketed to kids, and staying away from sugary beverages will help. But she says education is key.

"A sugary 12 ounce can of soda has an average 10 teaspoons of sugar," said Bassler.

There are strong objections from the soft drink industry which employs millions statewide. The industry voluntarily pulled full calorie drinks from schools across the state and they plan to improve labeling by the end of the year.

"The industry has done these voluntarily. We don't think a tax is the way to solve the problem," said Tim Bramlet, executive director, Illinois Beverage Association.

Mark Spielmann, a pediatric dietitian who treats obese children at La Rabida Hospital, gets busier every year. He says La Rabida is seeing more diseases in children that traditionally occur in adults.

"We're looking at the first generation of children that may not outlive their parents, and I think once this really sinks in to parents' minds, I think that's when we're going to start seeing change," said Spielmann. "A lot of cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, strokes and high blood pressure."

For Tara Yates, making sure she raises her daughter with good eating habits is a priority.

"Few food prices are expensive. It's hard to eat healthy because of the prices but we make it a priority," said Yates.

Parental responsibility is something health-care advocates says is part of the answer. However, no one ABC7 talked with Wednesday believes punishing parents with a tax deduction is fair.

Sen. Shane Cultra says he regrets his choice of words.

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