Editorial: City soft drink tax would fizzle

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A proposed new soft drink tax would be a burden on Chicago businesses, put the city at a competitive disadvantage to its suburban neighbors, and probably do little to discourage people from guzzling soda pop, the ultimate junk food.

A better way to combat the poor dietary habits that are to blame for alarmingly high rates of obesity and diabetes is public education, as First Lady Michelle Obama has been showing us for years. Soft drink consumption and obesity rates, finally, have begun a steady fall.

Ald. George Cardenas (12th) has proposed a penny-an-ounce tax on soft drink syrup and powders, as well as canned and bottled drinks, including juices, teas and sodas. It would come on top of an existing 9 percent fountain drink tax and a 3 percent tax on soft drink in cans and bottles.

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There’s no question Chicago could use the money, as Cardenas says. But we question the alderman’s assertion that the new tax would lead to improved public health. A new Cornell-University of Iowa analysis of a penny-an-ounce soda tax in Berkeley, Calif., that went into effect in March — the first such city tax in the country — concludes that the tax has not raised the retail price of beverages as much as expected. Instead, retailers, worried about losing customers, are absorbing most of the tax themselves. If the intent of the Berkeley tax was to discourage people from flavored sugar water, it was a bust.

In Chicago, the new tax would hurt businesses at a time when the city should be doing everything reasonable thing to grow the local economy. Businesses, especially small ones, already are girding themselves for mandated increases in the minimum wage and an additional 1-cent sales tax levy recently approved by the Cook County Board.

Moreover, unlike “sin taxes” on alcohol and tobacco, a tax on sugary drinks could easily roll down a slippery slope. What might the city tax next to beat the sugar blues? Candy bars? Sugary cereal? Cookies?

Almost every proposed soft drink tax that has been proposed around the country has been voted down, yet soft drink sales have dropped every year since 2005 and have dropped 25 percent in the past two decades. Meanwhile, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reports a decline in the number of obese children.

Drinking less soda is an excellent idea. On that we can agree.

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