Soda tax up for repeal

Soda tax up for repeal

Even as voters are threatening retribution against Cook County officials over a new tax on soft drinks, a billionaire scold is riding to their rescue.

Remember the "cola wars" of the 1980s, the television advertisements and marketing campaigns between Pepsi and Coke?

There is a new cola war in the 2010s, and it's not about which company will have the larger share of the consumer market. This one is about whether the price of sweetened beverages will remain sky high in Cook County and — depending on how emboldened our public officials get — become increasingly expensive in other counties in Illinois.

The Cook County Board infuriated and dismayed many of its constituents and retailers by implementing a penny-per-ounce tax on sweetened beverages that, by no accident, also taxes unsweetened beverages. Responding to an angry public, the board is scheduled to vote later this week on repealing the tax.

It should be interesting to watch hyper-political board members bob and weave on the question. But while many of them are timid evaluators of which way the political wind is blowing, board President Toni Preckwinkle is a firm believer in the tax as means of forcing consumers to make healthier choices and, more importantly, generating millions of new dollars.

From a political standpoint, it won't be easy to repeal the tax. Even if the county board approves a repeal, Preckwinkle is expected to veto it. The question then becomes whether there would be enough votes to override the veto.

Here's the dilemma board members face: They fear the public, and they fear having to deal with financial problems if the sugar tax is repealed. Which do they fear more?

This dispute is not just about Cook County or even Illinois. Taxing sugary drinks is becoming a national issue — one being driven, at least in part, by billionaire former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

An autocratic former corporate chief executive officer, Bloomberg is used to getting his way. He likes to dictate the choices regular people make, particularly if they don't conform to the choices he makes.

So Bloomberg has entered the political battle over the Cook County sugar tax. He's financed a series of television advertisements aimed at convincing consumers that soft drinks are bad for them and that he knows what good's for them, even if they don't.

News report indicate Bloomberg is already backing a $5 million advertising campaign message in support of the tax on sugary drinks. Just this week, a Bloomberg spokesman promised that he is willing to spend "whatever it takes" to support county board members who resist efforts to repeal the tax.

Bloomberg has already spent $20 million backing successful efforts to impose a sugar tax in San Francisco and Oakland, Calif. He's also financed similar efforts in Boulder, Colo., and Berkeley, Calif.

Philadelphia's sugar tax has been especially controversial. The city imposed a 1.5-cent-per-ounce tax, driving prices up so high that many consumers are buying their drinks outside the city.

That's almost certainly going to happen in Cook County. The only question is how many people will drive across the county line.

Bloomberg, of course, has deep pockets, and there's no way to win an advertising war with him. But the soft-drink industry also has ample resources, and it also has mobilized an extensive political and advertising campaign in opposition to the sugar tax.

Indeed, knowing how political Chicago and Cook County can be, the American Beverage Association has enlisted the legal assistance of the "consigliere" to Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan: Powerhouse Democratic lawyer Michael Kasper has taken on duties as the treasurer of the Citizens for a More Affordable Cook County.

The penny-per-ounce tax covers just about everything: regular soda and diet soda, sweetened coffees and teas, sports and energy drinks, and juice products. Two-liter containers consumers once bought for $1 in Cook County increased in price by the 67 cents. A case of Coke — 24 12-ounce cans — will cost $2.88 more. Then, of course, there's the sales tax.

Our elected officials don't miss many tricks when it comes to levying taxes. The question in Cook County is whether they have crossed a line taxpayers won't tolerate or whether a boundary has been breached.

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ROB McCOLLEY wrote on September 13, 2017 at 2:09 pm
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The board forgot to include the terms "diabetes," "obesity" and "public health hazard" in its analysis.