EDITORIAL: Cook County soda pop tax born under a bad sign

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This soda pop tax is jinxed, born under a bad sign, a man walking under a ladder.

The tax, a penny an ounce on sugary and not-so-sugary drinks, is deeply unpopular and has been plagued by problems from the start.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and the county commissioners should kill it. Cut costs where possible, and find a less annoying way to pay the bills.


The tax ran into trouble with the feds last week. The U.S. Department of Agriculture threatened to withhold some $87 million in food stamp money if the tax is not more legally levied. But this was just the latest black cat crossing the path of the tax. From the beginning, plenty of skeptics have questioned its purpose and fairness. Retailers are going batty trying to figure out what gets taxed and what doesn’t.

The county insists the primary purpose of the tax is to discourage people from buying sugary drinks, which are bad for one’s health. But the more obvious purpose is to raise millions of dollars in new revenue, which explains why the tax is being levied on many drinks that contain no sugar at all. Levying a sugary drink tax on a Diet Coke is like levying a cigarette tax on a nicotine patch.

We argued against such a tax two years ago when the city was considering one, and we questioned the county tax, which went into effect on August 2. We warned — one voice among many — that it could put retailers along the county’s borders at a competitive disadvantage with those across the border. That’s exactly what’s happening.

We said public education, rather than a sin tax, is a better way to encourage people to live healthier lives. Soft drink consumption and obesity rates have fallen across the country for several years now, without a poke from a soda pop tax.

And we marveled at the inconsistency. Why are sugar-rich coffee drinks exempt from the tax, for example, while some diet drinks are not? And why not tax other sugar bombs, such as cookies and candy?

Retailers this summer promptly sued. Good for them. But then, in a horrible public relations move, the county asked a judge to order the retailers to pay the county’s legal bills in the case. Punishing legitimate business people for having the temerity to question a tax that threatens their livelihood? The county was shamed into backing off.

And now, overruling what the county has advised, the feds say retailers cannot impose the tax on soft drinks bought through the SNAP (food stamp) program, even if it’s just to work around a processing glitch and the tax is returned in cash.

Cook County’s soda pop tax is as welcome as a broken mirror. Toss it.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.

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