The doomed soda tax was never about our health
Chicago can artwork is displayed at the Museum Campus on Sept. 8, 2017. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has confirmed what most of us suspected all along. That penny-per-ounce soda tax had nothing to do with our health. It was only about the money.
Facing a vote on Tuesday that would repeal the controversial tax on sugary drinks, Preckwinkle laid everything on the line and warned us that if the tax goes, so will jobs and services many Cook County residents depend upon.
Preckwinkle has admitted from the beginning she had a budget shortfall she needed to deal with, but sugarcoated that message with one about how this tax would make Cook County residents healthier. Then, when the tax was in jeopardy, she allowed former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to bombard us for weeks with a television ad warning how soft drinks are harming minority communities.
Though the ad happened to be true, the timing made it seem insulting and condescending. It assumed that African-Americans and Hispanics, unlike everyone else, didn’t know that sugary drinks are unhealthy. And that minorities, again like everybody else, choose to drink sodas anyway because they enjoy them.
Grownups hate being told what to do, especially when they know the message is insincere.
Soda companies have spent decades building loyalty to their brands in minority communities. Did Preckwinkle really think that one TV ad could undo a relationship that has spanned generations?
Cook County, after all, is no Berkeley, Calif. — the first city where Bloomberg poured in millions to successfully pass a penny-per-ounce soda tax. This is the Chicago area. We’ve got to have something sweet to wash down that deep-dish pizza.
Perhaps if Preckwinkle had been straight with us from the beginning, she wouldn’t be in the unfortunate predicament she’s in now — facing an angry backlash that almost certainly will lead to a repeal of the unpopular tax and leave her credibility irreparably tarnished.
But more importantly, the multibillion-dollar Big Soda industry wouldn’t be on the verge of claiming victory.
In a counterattack, opponents spent millions of dollars playing into the anger residents have toward politicians who have mismanaged public funds over the years and are now forcing taxpayers and consumers to pay the price.
Groups such as the Can the Tax Coalition, which includes the American Beverage Association and merchants, understood what Preckwinkle apparently did not — that consumers don’t like to be duped.
You get much better results when you camouflage the truth with commercials that make people think a soft drink can actually make them happier and more carefree. That’s the message soda companies have been spreading in minority communities for decades.
It is no secret that soft drink companies target young African-Americans and Hispanics, much the same way the cigarette industry did for half a century before the government forced Big Tobacco to back off. And the way fast-food chains saturate low-income communities with low-cost, fat-laden, triple-decker cheeseburgers and french fries.
It is no coincidence either that the Coca-Cola Co. hired LeBron James to pitch Sprite. And though another ad backfired, Pepsi thought it could appeal to young African-Americans with that controversial Black Lives Matter takeoff featuring Kendall Jenner.
The 18-to-34 age group drinks more sugar-sweetened beverages than anyone, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Forty-seven percent of African-Americans consume at least one sugary beverage a day — more than any other ethnic group, according to the CDC. At the same time, blacks suffer from obesity, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease at rates higher than other groups.
The Hispanic Institute also has noted that sugar-sweetened beverages are having the same medical impact on America’s fastest-growing ethnic group and urged Hispanics to use their political clout to influence public policy.
If Preckwinkle really had cared about the impact of sugary drinks on our health, she would have begun a campaign to stop the soda industry from targeting minority communities long before her back was against the wall to come up with an extra $200 million for the 2018 budget. Maybe then the communities that needed to hear the message would have been more willing to listen.
When you weigh Preckwinkle’s other available choices for making up the projected loss in revenue — layoffs and budget cuts or a property tax increase — the soda tax is the best way to spread the costs across the board.
Unlike property tax increases, garbage fees and state income tax increases, the beverage tax allows consumers the freedom to choose whether they want to pay the extra money or not. Those who don’t can simply give up sodas or purchase them outside the county.
The irony of the soda tax repeal is that African-Americans and Hispanics will suffer disproportionately from the potential cuts in public health and public services resulting from the lost soda tax revenue.
How do we know this? Because minorities and poor people always bear the brunt of budget cuts.
That should have been Preckwinkle’s message. Maybe then she could have convinced us that Big Soda couldn’t care less that we have to pay an extra 68 cents for a 2-liter bottle of soft drink.
The only thing they care about is keeping our money in their own pockets.