Following Philly, Chicago's county starts similar soda tax

Chicago’s Cook County this week became the latest and by far the largest jurisdiction to impose a tax on sugary beverages, and the only one to follow Philadelphia’s lead in including diet drinks.

Six places across the country have passed levies on sugary beverages since Mayor Kenney signed the 1.5-cents-per-ounce tax a year ago. Retailers in Cook County, the nation’s second-most-populous county with 5.2 million people — nearly half of them in the country’s third-most-populous city — began collecting the one-cent tax on Wednesday, although a court decision last week that cleared the way for the tax is being appealed.

The county commissioners there, like Kenney and City Council here, saw the tax mainly as a source of revenue. Most other localities have viewed beverage taxes as a public health measure that could help reduce obesity. Indeed, the Seattle City Council considered including diet drinks but ultimately did not after hearing testimony that scientific evidence of health benefits was clear only for reducing consumption of drinks with added sugar, said James Krieger, executive director of Healthy Food America, which has been working with governments around the country that are looking at soda taxes.

“I think it is pretty much a local decision and it will play out locally depending on which city or state is considering it,” said Krieger.

Kenney sought the tax to support prekindergarten and other programs. Revenues have not met initial projections but the tax “definitely sparked interest” in other places, Krieger said. Previously, only Berkeley, Calif., had passed a sugar-sweetened beverage tax, which took effect in 2015 and has significantly suppressed sales there. Referendum questions passed last fall in San Francisco, Oakland and Albany, Calif., and Boulder, Colo. Legislative bodies took action in Seattle and Cook County.

The beverage industry, which has spent millions of dollars fighting the efforts and had previously won a string of victories, prevailed only in Santa Fe, N.M. Court battles continue, with Philadelphia recently submitting its response to the American Beverage Association’s petition seeking an appeal to the state Supreme Court of a Commonwealth Court decision upholding the tax. Meanwhile, tax collections continue — as they do in Cook County.

“County residents and consumers are in absolute shock and expressing outrage when they find out how much the tax is,” David Goldenberg, spokesman for the beverage association-funded Can the Tax Coalition, said at the end of the first day.

While Krieger saw the tax as a significant win, he split his “two hats” when asked his feelings about including diet drinks.  “From the policy and research perspective I don’t think there is sufficient evidence for harm or benefit” to argue in favor of taxing artificially sweetened beverages, he said.

“As a clinician” — he is an internal-medicine physician who practiced until a few years ago — he would tell patients that “the best thing is to switch to water, low-fat dairy products, or unsweetened coffees and teas. All of those have no known health harms and each of those has health benefits,” he said.