Mayor Hopes Competition, Not Taxes, Will Improve Wellness

Beverage industry offers Chicago, San Antonio $5 million in wellness competition

Rather than hiking the tax on sugary drinks or banning them altogether, as New York City has done, Chicago is hoping information and competition will help the city's workforce improve its wellness, earn it a $5 million cash prize and ultimately reduce health care costs.

The prize money is being put up by the American Beverage Foundation and has been offered to Chicago and San Antonio, which are seen as having two of the most aggressive municipal wellness programs.

Individual participants who make the greatest improvements to their wellness profile -- smoking cessation, reduced blood pressure and improved body mass index -- will also be eligible for a $1,000 cash bonus.

The move comes as the beverage industry comes under increased criticism for the role its sugary drinks play in the nation's obesity problem. But instead of taxing those products to discourage their consumption, as was proposed by Chicago Ald. George Cardenas (12th) earlier this year, Emanuel said he prefers the competitive route.

"If the six chronic illnesses that you know -- whether it’s hypertension, blood pressure, weight, smoking -- if you basically put aside personal responsibility you're missing the core ingredient for improving health care outcomes," said Emanuel at a Monday morning press event with beverage industry leaders. "This, in my view, and since I believe in personal responsibility, is one of the key ingredients to improving health care outcomes and improving costs."

New York City last month adopted an ordinance barring businesses from selling sugary drinks in containers larger than 16 ounces.

But the president and CEO of the American Beverage Association, Susan Neely, said increased taxes aren't the way to go.

"We think these kind of things are going to get a lot further faster than bans or fights over discriminatory taxes, which there’s research after research that says they will not work, they will not change behavior," she said. "Even if you would mark up a product or tax it 100 percent, you’re not going to reduce body mass index."

For it's part, beverage giants will be offering first to Chicago and San Antonio new vending machines that offer calorie information for each of the products offered. The machines are expected to roll out to the rest of the country next year.

The city's municipal wellness program, "Chicago Lives Healthy," is offered to more than 47,000 city employees and their eligible spouses. Those who take part can pay a reduced health care premium, and it's hoped the program will cut the annual $500 million bill for health care for city employees.

So far, about 38,000 employees have registered, according to numbers released from the mayor's office.

In a statement announcing the program, Cardenas expressed confidence it would "inspire our city's workers to take control of their wellness." But the Chicago Sun-Times notes him as being unwilling to let go of the idea of a tax just because of the industry's prize money.

"The jury is still out in terms of what else we can do," Cardenas said, according to the Sun-Times. "Whatever is working in New York or other places, you can never leave off the table. It’s a large problem we have to deal with. You’ve got to keep your options open."

The challenge between Chicago and San Antonio kicks off Jan. 1 and will run for three months. Emanuel said the $5 million reward, if Chicago wins, would be put back into the Chicago Lives Healthy program.

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