How sweet it isn't

How sweet it isn't

Elected officials are learning the hard way that consumers of sugary drinks, a majority, don't like it when they're treated like cigarettes smokers, a minority.

The great soft-drink fiasco continues to shake the political foundations of Cook County politics, outraging consumers, frightening county board members who voted for the beverage tax and encouraging those who consider the issue a ticket to higher office.

For now, however, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle stands proudly by this disastrous policy decision. She's withdrawn an ill-advised lawsuit that demanded $17 million in damages (lost tax revenue, by her estimate) from the Illinois Retail Merchants Association for having the gall to challenge the law in court and winning a court-ordered stay in its implementation.

But Preckwinkle continues to ignore editorial advice from the Chicago Tribune to ask the board to repeal the tax and insists the anticipated new revenue will pay for "core functions" of county government.

"Meanwhile, Big Soda has spent millions of dollars to galvanize opposition to the 1-cent-per-ounce beverage tax. We know what their millions are going toward — fighting against the recommendations of the World Health Organization, the American Heart Association and the other leading health care advocacy groups," Preckwinkle argues.

While she digs in for what appears to be a pitched battle ahead, one board rival — fellow Democrat Richard Boykin — is considering challenging her bid for re-election in the March party primary. At the same time, a group of Republican state legislators, led by Reps. Michael McAuliffe of Chicago and Christine Winger of Bloomington, have filed legislation, House Bill 4082, that would prevent any home-rule county from imposing a tax on sweetened beverages based on volume sold. The legislation would apply to any county ordinance adopted on or before the effective date of the bill, repealing the existing Cook County ordinance.

In a stunningly tone-deaf move, Cook County Board members, touting their money grab — they envisioned $200 million a year in additional revenue — as one motivated by public-health concerns, imposed a penny-per-ounce tax on sweetened beverages. It was a replay of the high taxes levied on cigarettes, also ostensibly for health reasons.

The tax, which became effective Aug. 2, has led to staggering price increases. Consumers, many of whom vote, are paying an average 67 percent more for a 2-liter of soda, 43 percent more for a gallon of juice drink or sweetened iced tea and 29 percent more for a 12-pack. The special levy on a case of 24 12-ounce cans of Coke has increased the price by nearly $3.

As if that wasn't enough, Crain's Chicago Business reports that the Illinois Liquor Control Commission has expressed concerns about the legality of the new tax. A letter from the commission to Preckwinkle indicates that while the tax on sweetened beverages excludes alcohol, many wholesalers distribute both alcoholic and sweetened beverages and will have to deal with the complications. The commission stated that dual burden "may lead to practices that violate the Illinois Liquor Control Act."

One other downside to the tax is that not only do consumers not like it, many will also not pay it. They'll arrange their purchases of sweetened beverages at businesses outside of Cook County, costing merchants sales across the board. That's what has happened in Philadelphia.

It remains to be seen how this issue will play out in Cook County, although the tax looks to be in deep trouble. But one thing is for sure: It will be awhile before politicians in the rest of the state, even though always ravenous for new sources of revenue, will look to high taxes on sugary drinks as a solution to money woes.

The reaction from angry Cook County residents is sending a message that even they cannot ignore.

Sections (2):Editorials, Opinion