Why Did Chicago's Soda Tax Fail?

CC BY 2.0. Mike Schmid

It would have been the largest soda tax in the United States, but it only lasted two months.

Two months ago Cook County, Illinois, established the largest soda tax in the United States. Covering an area that includes Chicago and 5.2 million residents, the tax added an extra cent per ounce of soda or other sugary beverage -- a fairly standard amount in the U.S. cities and counties that have established similar taxes.

But after all the effort it took to push the tax through and months of fighting between public health groups and well-monied industry reps, the soda tax has now been repealed. The Cook County Board of Commissioners voted 15-1 last week to roll it back as early as December 1st.

The decision is a significant win for Big Soda, and follows on the heels of recent victory in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where a proposed soda tax was rejected in May. Soda tax advocates are disappointed and left wondering what went wrong. These taxes, after all, seemed to have gained momentum in recent years, so why are they failing now?

The Washington Post attempts to answer this question. Part of the issue is with the two-sided goal of a soda tax. For some, it's about reducing sugar consumption and improving public health. For others, it's about generating revenue for cash-strapped local governments. There's no reason why these two sides cannot work together, but it does make a situation more complicated when motives are not shared.

Legally, implementation is complicated. From the Washington Post:

"An early version of the tax was aimed at distributors... but the county was forced to revise that plan when it realized that it would make the soda tax subject to an additional sales tax, which is illegal in Illinois.
"[Then] the county proposed making the tax a line item at the point of sale... but local governments are not allowed to tax transactions that are paid for using federal nutrition benefits, which meant the county had to exempt more than 870,000 people from paying the tax — a last-minute change that dented revenue expectations."

Then there's the money-fuelled political game. Anna Lappé writes in the New York Times that Big Soda is known for creating and funding its own fake grass-roots campaign groups. These groups use "financial power to shape public opinion before supporters of the tax [are] able to craft their own message for a public debate." Lappé emphasizes the need for stronger community-driven groups to ensure soda taxes take root and stay strong:

"When efforts for sugary-drinks taxes are driven and supported by community coalitions that build public awareness early on, they’re better able to withstand industry attacks. Strong coalitions are vital both to adopt new taxes and to ensure they remain to curb consumption and generate funds for public health programs."

It is sad to see Cook County's tax disappear, but it doesn't mean the effort is failing completely. Berkeley boasts great success, raising $1.3 million last year for nutrition programs in the city. Philadelphia and Boulder have (higher than usual) soda taxes and Seattle passed one in June. Massachusetts and Tennessee are looking into it.

In the meantime, one commenter on Lappé's article has good advice that skirts the whole contentious issue: Make water free!