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Chicago's Soda Tax Fizzles

Everybody realized it was about bringing in money, not improving public health.

Kid drinking sodaMonkey Business Images / DreamstimeChicago's controversial soda tax is dead. Lawmakers in Cook County, Il., which includes Chicago and more than 100 surrounding cities, towns, and villages, including Evanston (where I went to grad school) and Des Plaines, voted this week to repeal the tax.

It was big news when lawmakers in the second largest county in the United States voted last year to adopt the soda tax. Supporters hailed it as "the biggest deal yet."

But guess what? It's an even bigger deal that the tax has been repealed.

The short-lived tax, passed in November 2016, was a disaster. Billed as a way to raise revenue and improve residents' health, instead it spurred lawsuits and threats from the federal government. Retailers complained beverage sales had plummeted by nearly half, thanks in part to wealthier consumers avoiding the tax by driving outside the county to buy soda.

Chicago learned soda taxes aren't the panacea their supporters claim. I oppose them for many reasons. For example, they're regressive, promote layoffs, don't reduce obesity, and could be the foot in the door that's used to further erode food freedom, I wrote last year in a Sun-Times op-ed.

Chicago's two main newspapers, the Tribune and the Sun-Times, published strongly worded editorials and columns in recent days blasting the tax and celebrating its looming demise.

"Crack open that can of soda with gusto, taxpayers," the Tribune editorial board wrote. "You won." The Tribune's editors used words like "deceit" and "a lie" to describe the tax. They'd used similar language just last month in another scathing editorial blasting the tax.

The county had billed the tax as a health measure. But, as criticism mounted, even supporters on the council were forced to admit the obvious: the tax was nothing but a money grab. Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg labeled the tax "a bald cash grab" that "was never about battling obesity or diabetes."

"That penny-per-ounce soda tax had nothing to do with our health," wrote Tribune columnist Dahleen Glanton. "It was only about the money."

Glanton dubbed a flurry of pro-tax ads targeting African American and Latino voters "insulting," "condescending," and "insincere." Those ads were bankrolled by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, a longtime soda foe, in an effort to rescue the tax in the face of what Glanton and others rightly painted as an "angry backlash" from consumers.

If all this sounds kinda familiar, then you've been paying attention. Like Chicago's reviled foie gras ban—passed by the city council in 2006 and repealed by the same council 2008—the county soda tax was voted in and then out largely by many of the same lawmakers who'd passed the law.

In 2016, a decade after its passage, the Tribune dubbed the short-lived foie gras ban a "fiasco." In 2027, I have no doubt, if newspapers still exist in some form, that a post-mortem of the soda tax might use similar language.

Though recent ballot measures have seen some victories for soda taxes, this repeal is further evidence that the tide may be turning. Philadelphia's tax, already facing a legal challenge, has seen collections fall short of lofty revenue projections. A similar repeal move by lawmakers in Philadelphia isn't looming, but it's also not out of the question.

Still, the fact lawmakers and pundits in Cook County came to their senses doesn't mean soda taxes are verboten. Last month, the Des Moines Register editorial board urged the state—home to highly subsidized corn farmers who raise crops that are turned into the high fructose corn syrup that commonly sweetens soda—to adopt a soda tax.

I flew into Chicago's O'Hare airport yesterday, on my way up to a board meeting in Wisconsin. While the tax is still in effect until December, and I don't normally drink soda (maybe a six-pack or so per year, total), I made an exception after I landed in Chicago. It tasted sweet, like victory.

Photo Credit: Monkey Business Images / Dreamstime

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Last month, the Des Moines Register editorial board urged the state—home to highly subsidized corn farmers who raise crops that are turned into the high fructose corn syrup that commonly sweetens soda—to adopt a soda tax.

    Would that paper, like Chicago's, turn around and hail the repeal of such a tax should it happen?

    I assume it wasn't raising any real revenue for Chicago. Otherwise, I can't imagine any of the other broken promises of the ban being enough to kill it.

  • Sevo||

    Even if it didn't raise a penny, I'm amazed that any politico admitted it was a mistake.

  • Tired_Libertarian||

    Do your knees and lips get sore?

  • Careless||

    It was supposed to be 3% of county revenue

  • Nonstopdrivel||

    It's always amusing to me to drive by the billboards advertising the $1 any size sodas at McDonalds, and then to see the fine print about the surcharge that will be tacked on inside Philly city limits. The solution is simplicity itself: I never go to McDonalds inside Philly city limits.

    Then again, I never really eat at McDonalds outside of Philly city limits either. Hm.

  • Last of the Shitlords||

    Yeah, it's McDonald's fault a bunch of faggot communists enacted a stratospherically high sin tax.

  • Subpoena'd Woodchipper||

    I'm not sure what the sexual orientation of the Communists on the Cook county board have to do with the topic at hand. We don't care about who puts what in who's booty - we just want a smaller government

  • creech||

    Philly's tax may be hard to get rid of. They targeted revenue toward day care (I mean, pre-school) and several thousand attended last year with many hundreds more on the waiting list. To repeal it will mean throwing all these kids out into the street (where they will die like they did pre-2016) and then Bloomberg can run a new series of ads showing how these kids will be scarred for life because they can't take part in cutesy, bogus "graduation" ceremonies when they advance to kindergarten.

  • flyfishnevada||

    Apparently, that's what Cook County failed to do...make it about the children. if they would have promised to fund some program for kids, folks wouldn't have been so eager to get rid of it no matter how poorly planned and executed.

  • Careless||

    Apparently, that's what Cook County failed to do...make it about the children

    Oh, but Bloomberg tried. He ran at least three different ads for the past two months telling us how there are toddlers too fat to run and the only way to stop that from happening is a tax on beverages that include those with no calories.

  • ||

    I REALLY enjoyed watching commercials Bloomberg had paid for that aired after he had already lost. They made it sound like you could reach right through your TV and rip the sugary beverages from the chubby hands of local poor children.

  • Pro Libertate||

    FREEE-DOMMM!! And a Filet o' Fish, please.

  • flyfishnevada||

    If only voters we as concerned about other issues as they are about soda. Don't tax their soda but go ahead and tax the bejesus out of everything and anything else. That's apparently okay.

  • Careless||

    And indeed, Cook County raised the sales tax on everything last year.

  • MoreFreedom||

    Why should government be engaged in social engineering of any kind, and instead let consumers choose what they want?

    I chalk up the failure of Chicago's soda tax to 1) the unintended consequences that should have been obvious, and 2) another tax that leads to less tax revenue thanks to competition among governments. Another example proving you can't tax your way to prosperity.

    The real rule is the opposite: governments that minimize taxation to pay for just protecting its citizens from others who'd harm them, are the most prosperous. Chicago is on critical care and has to pay its bills that have come due. Pretty soon they'll be another Detroit, and their former government workers will be getting big haircuts. I hope they tax, i.e., give a bigger haircut to the ones who've left Chicago and Illinois more.

  • Longtobefree||

    1) I suspect that all of those consequences were actually intentional, because they were/are obvious.

  • @TheBitcoinimist||

    ...better than it tasting like napalm in the morning.

  • XM||

    This was prohibition lite, if you think about it. Coke is a global brand and the unofficial national drink of Mexico.

    A town says "Something that was a part of your life forever will now cost more in this region, deal with it". What will the people do?

    People get upset when Mcdonalds won't you give you some gimmick Chinese sauce. Occasionally even libs will say "don't mess with things we like".

  • Bra Ket||

    Retailers complained beverage sales had plummeted by nearly half, thanks in part to wealthier consumers avoiding the tax by driving outside the county to buy soda.

    "Wealthier consumers"? The ability to drive a few miles to save several cents on some cheap drink is some kind of luxury enjoyed by the luckier members of society? Is this political correctness or something? There's like 300 million cars in this country. Homeless people have freaking cars.

  • ||

    Those whom this law was meant to mess with do not have cars.

  • Longtobefree||

    So the fuel taxes offset the loss in soda tax revenue?

  • BBerry12||

    The tax would have been a success if those damn libertarian tax cheats weren't always threatening to wave that damn constitution thing at us, and let us put up the county border customs checkpoints we need to stop those soda smugglers!

  • Brubaker||

    Retailers complained beverage sales had plummeted by nearly half, thanks in part to wealthier consumers avoiding the tax by driving outside the county to buy soda.

    How wealthy do you have to be to drive a mile or two out of Cook County?

  • sweettea71||

    As long as you have third party payers in healthcare (insurance companies or government) people won't do much to change their behavior. Once patients start paying themselves will you see any significant changes in behavior.

  • Longtobefree||

    Yeah, right!
    Because no one was obese back in the dark ages when we actually could by insurance based on our own wants and needs rather than the government mandated excesses.

  • NoVaNick||

    A rather obese woman I work with drinks at least 2 Starbucks hazelnut lattes every day to wash down the boxes of oreos that are always on her desk. She complains constantly about her asthma and various other maladies too. So why is nobody taxing that crap? (I don't agree with any sin tax, but it seems that you only hear about them for tobacco or now soda-if you are going to have them, at least be consistent).

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