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The Not so Sweet Truth About the Sugar Tax

By Zubair Muhammad, Guest Columnist

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The Sweetened Beverage Tax, also referred to as the “Sugar Tax,” went into effect in Cook County on Wed., Aug. 2. Although originally set to be instated on July 1, the tax was delayed by a lawsuit, filed by the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, that aimed to stop the county from implementing the tax. 

The tax is applied at a rate of $0.01 per ounce on the retail sale of sweetened beverages in Cook County. But the tax goes beyond just soda. Bottled and canned beverages, diet soda, ready-to-drink sweetened coffees and teas, sports and energy drinks, and juice products that aren’t 100 percent juice also are taxed. Exempt from the tax are 100% natural fruit juices with no added sweeteners and milk.

The tax was greeted with resentment from retailers and consumers alike. Some beverage industry groups went so far as to call the charge unconstitutional. With a soda tax in place, soft drink companies such as PepsiCo and Coca Cola, which the Illinois State Board of Investments hold more than $66 million worth of stocks and bonds in, are expecting a decline in business.

Grocery chains such as Sunset Foods expect to lose business around the holidays when people usually buy sugary drinks for parties. To counter the tax, grocery chains are directing customers to their other locations outside of Cook County. As a result of outraged shoppers heading to neighboring counties to purchase their drinks and groceries, businesses over the border in Dupage and Lake Counties have been thriving.

Student Athletes at Niles West have also expressed their dislike for the tax and have cited it as a reason to cut down on their favorite sugary drinks.

“I personally don’t agree with it because I like snapping open a bottle of Gatorade after track meets and workouts over the weekends, but recently I’ve been sticking to water instead,” senior track runner Wali Chaudhry said.

“I mean I drink sometimes but the tax bothers me. I might even cut down on it because it doesn’t help me much anyways” fellow track runner Nerina Alic said.

So this leaves us to the question, who exactly proposed and implemented the tax? That would be Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

According to Board President Preckwinkle, the Sweetened Beverage tax is intended to bring in revenue for the county to use in the best interest of public health systems, as well as put the county on a stable financial footing.

“This measure provides important revenue, not only to avoid damaging cuts for public health and public safety systems, but also to expand our community-based interventions in both arenas. It also puts us on a stable financial footing for the next three fiscal years, during which we will not have to approve any additional tax increases,” Preckwinkle said.

Though implemented with good intentions, Republican state legislators have also had their fair say regarding what they think of the tax. Republican state Representative Grant Wehrli of Naperville opposes the tax and views it as a “cash grab.”

“The Metra Station in Naperville is the largest commuter base coming into Chicago. So, my residents pay this tax every time they come into work and decide to eat out and buy sweetened beverages in Chicago. Let’s be clear. This tax was sold under the auspice of it helping health in the area. It is simply a cash grab,” Wehrli said.

Opposing the tax,  Illinois House Republicans introduced House Bill 4082 on Tues., Aug. 15, a bill they hoped would repeal the Cook County sugary beverage tax. Their attempt was blocked.

Students have also voiced their criticism of the tax.

“I don’t like it; Who would want to pay an extra couple of cents for a Gatorade,” Junior Ethan Kalchik said.

Although met with sharp criticism, the infamous tax has secured the vote and favor of health groups. The executive director of Healthy Food America, Jim Krieger, believes Cook County, like other regions in the U.S. that have implemented a soda tax, is setting a good example for other cities to follow in order to help people avoid health related issues.

“By following the example of the seven that have already acted [by implementing a soda tax],” Krieger said,  “cities have a golden opportunity to help their people avoid premature death and illness and cut health costs, while raising revenue to make residents’ lives better in other ways, as well,” Krieger said.

He further explained the fiscal and health benefits of the tax, both in the short and long term.

“A tax of one cent per ounce in those 21 jurisdictions would reach 23.5 million people with health benefits including declining rates of diabetes, nearly 60,000 fewer cases of obesity, nearly 4,000 fewer premature deaths, and avoided health care costs of over $1.2 billion. The sugary drink levies would raise nearly $1 billion each year for investment in improving communities and promoting health.”

Coach Fernando Perez encourages good nutritional  habits among students and believes the tax may make a small change in the drinking habits of student athletes.

“In general the drinking habits need improvement. Too many athletes choose these drinks more because of comfort than out of function. There are many factors that lead to the comfort choice so the problem is much larger than people think. The sugar tax can make a change, but a small one. Good nutritional habits are made through good conscious choices.”

“Over the years I have seen the effect of these energy drinks with athletes. Most of them not good. One can trace that back to nutrient deficiency. A good number of athletes do not get adequate nutrients necessary for their daily demand,” Perez said.

With only a month and few days since the tax has been implemented, only time can tell if the tax it will benefit Cook County or continue to attract resentment from retailers and some legislators. For now, remains another tax on the already burdened shoulders of Illinois residents.

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