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Finding hope, promise in the wreckage of the Cook County soda tax

Chicago Tribune

Wednesday, October 11, 2017  |  Column  |  Eric Zorn

Taxes, sales (88)

Was it really so unreasonable for Cook County to try to add a “sin tax” to sugary drinks?

I’m asking now that the hugely unpopular tax appears dead — Tuesday’s committee vote at the County Board presaged a full repeal Wednesday — and perspectives are less clouded by rage and indignation.

Answer: No.

High-calorie, nutrition-free pop is bad for you — bad for your teeth, bad for your heart, bad for your weight, bad for your blood pressure. Public health officials refer to it as “liquid candy” and note that it plays no role in a balanced diet.

And though drinking sweetened beverages in moderation isn’t a sin so much as it is a luxury, sugary soda is a ripe and fair target for extra taxes similar to those governments add to cigarettes and alcohol. Heck, Chicago has been levying an additional 3 percent soft-drink tax since the mid-1990s, a fact many residents aren’t even aware of.

Since 2007, Chicago has also charged a nickel tax on bottled water, a luxury beverage that’s not even bad for you.

Setting aside the questions of whether Cook County really needs the money and whether officials should have identified more progressive sources of revenue, such a tax is, in principle, a mainstream idea.

The reasons it’s now almost certain to die just three months after it was enacted are well-known, but I’ll rank the top four for you:

1. It’s too steep. A penny an ounce takes a noticeable bite out of every drink purchase, particularly bulk and discount purchases.

2. It’s in our faces. For legal reasons, the new county tax appears as a line item on receipts. If cigarette, alcohol and gasoline taxes were also line items instead of buried in the price, customers would be in open revolt.

3. It’s illogical. Milkshake fat bombs and high-sugar fruit juices are exempt, as are sweetened coffee drinks made by baristas. And because it applies to sweetened beverages, not just sugary beverages, artificially sweetened diet drinks are also subject to the tax.

4. It feels born of a lie. The public health arguments in favor of taxing certain soft drinks, noted above, are strong. But they’ve sounded like afterthoughts or excuses rather than sincere motivating factors. This was particularly true given the inclusion of diet pop.

In all, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s initiative was such a PR disaster that it not only may end her political career (she faces re-election next year), it may also block the spread of beverage taxes to other cities and counties. Officials elsewhere are likely to look at the polling done here and drop the soda tax idea quickly rather than learn from our mistakes on how to do it right — smaller, narrower and more honestly.

The best thing to come out of this Cook County misadventure is a heightened awareness of the ill effects of excessive sugary-drink consumption, especially among children.

Some have argued that everyone already knew that pop is bad for you.

Vaguely, abstractly, yes, perhaps. But the belated, furious and ultimately futile campaign to support the tax brought forward the research that links regular ingestion of “liquid candy” to an elevated risk for obesity, Type 2 diabetes, stroke, gout, tooth decay and other ailments.

“A study that followed 40,000 men for two decades found that those who averaged one can of a sugary beverage per day had a 20 percent higher risk of having a heart attack or dying from a heart attack than men who rarely consumed sugary drinks,” according to a fact sheet from the Harvard School of Public Health.

Doctors everywhere, particularly those who deal with low-income populations often targeted by soda peddlers, strongly support efforts to reduce consumption. Thanks to this ad campaign backing the tax, funded in large part by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, their voices have been heard.

Those voices can change norms. They can persuade parents not to serve their kids so much sugar water — including, yes, fruit juices that masquerade as healthy choices — and maybe cut back a bit themselves, even if there’s no extra tax to act as a scourge.

But that’s only if Bloomberg, the physicians and others who’ve been blaring out the health warnings build on the momentum they’ve created rather than pack up and go away mad.

A public conditioned to believe that such concerns are genuine and urgent is far more likely to support a “sin tax” on soda next time, on the off chance there ever is a next time.