Grocery retailers and consumers are cheering the repeal of Cook County, Ill.’s penny-per-ounce tax on sweetened beverages amid pressure from industry groups and disgruntled taxpayers.
Cook County Board members voted 15-2 on Wednesday to approve the repeal after its near-unanimous approval by the board’s finance committee a day earlier, the Chicago Tribune reported.
The tax, which had been in effect since Aug. 2, will end Dec. 1. The tax was applied to most beverages sweetened either with sugar or artificial sweeteners sold in retail or foodservice; exceptions included barista-blended coffees or other mixed-to-order drinks.
“This is great news for consumers and retailers throughout Cook County,” said Rob Karr, president and CEO of the Springfield-based Illinois Retail Merchants Association, which led the fight against the tax on behalf of area retailers. “Since its inception, this tax was poorly devised, placed an enormous operational and financial burden on retailers, and saddled consumers with the responsibility to pick up the tab.”
Repeal came after an aggressive campaign that included dueling TV spots from tax foes and a pro-tax effort bankrolled by billionaire public-health advocate Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City.
“We are pleased that Cook County commissioners heard the concerns of constituents and grocers and voted to repeal the county’s beverage tax," said Jennifer Hatcher, chief public policy officer of the Arlington, Va.-based Food Marketing Institute. "The loss of business caused by this burdensome and regressive tax stunned local grocery stores and community members. Although the tax’s impact on local communities has been significant, we are inspired by the way Cook County residents channeled their outrage into an overwhelming grassroots response."
Public and local media opinion ran consistently high against the tax, which its supporters deemed necessary for public health but which was revealed to be primarily a revenue grab by a county government looking to plug holes in its budget. As well, residents of Cook County, already one of the highest-taxed localities in the nation, resented the nanny-state measure and deemed it unfair because it included artificially sweetened calorie-free beverages and exempted food stamp recipients from paying the tax.
Additionally, Chicago-area retailers demonstrated that they were losing sales as consumers seeking to avoid the tax started shopping in collar counties and Indiana for beverages, as well as other groceries.
Not surprisingly, supporters of the tax decried the repeal as a blow to public health.
Jim O’Hara, health promotion policy director for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, said that the repeal vote “will not change the momentum these commonsense policies have. Sugar-drink taxes have been successfully implemented in seven jurisdictions across the United States in the last four years. Evaluations of the first such U.S. tax, in Berkeley, Calif., and another from Mexico have shown decreased consumption of sugar drinks and increased consumption of healthy beverages, while providing needed revenues for other public health measures.”
Jim Krieger, executive director of Seattle-based Healthy Food America, noted that “[r]epeal of this tax is a disappointment. A measure that prevents diabetes, heart disease and obesity in Cook County by reducing consumption of unhealthy sugary drinks is no longer protecting the public’s health.” Krieger further criticized efforts by “Big Soda” to oppose the tax.