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Reaction to the soda tax is overblown

Friday, August 18, 2017
Crain's Chicago Business
by Marilyn Katz

As both a Cook County resident and an observer of city and county politics, I find the flap about the soda tax a bit confusing. Granted, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle could, and should, have done a better job of defending it—citing, perhaps, the cost of obesity for both individuals and the county in terms of diabetes and all the other well-documented health problems that accrue from imbibing large amounts of sugary drinks.

Read more: Our 2-cents on Preckwinkle's soda tax

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That said, the outrage expressed seems strange compared to other far more odious taxes imposed on us the past seven years. Over that time, Chicago and Cook County have imposed a spate of new steep taxes and fees, and not on personal choices of life but on the fundamentals. These include increases in fees on phone service, computer service, water and sewer service, garbage pick-up, cable services—all of which, according to a 2014 Tribune article, added up to a total of an estimated nearly $500 per year per household. And that was before the monthly garbage fee went into effect!

Even though tax increases on the necessities of life have been levied on every household in Chicago—regardless of anyone's income or ability to pay them—most passed with little or no protest from either lawmakers or the media.

Yes, the largest single increase in taxes was imposed on cigarettes, which are now around $7 per pack. I am a smoker, and yet I think that's fair, despite the fact that it falls most heavily on lower income folks as studies show they are more likely to smoke than their upper-income counterparts. Still, cigarettes, cigars, and chewing tobacco all have both a personal and societal cost—and imbibing them is a matter of choice, not necessity.

Read more: Here's what's in that Bloomberg ad defending the pop tax


So why the outsized ire on the soda tax? Is it the lobbying of the powerful beverage and retail merchants association who consistently lobby against any progressive legislation that raises wages or lowers waste? Is it jockeying for position in preparation for the 2018 elections by would-be rivals eager to tarnish on of the state's most respected politicians?

Whatever the reasons behind the super-sized reaction to the tax, it seems to me that both politicians and the media should save their fire for the taxes and fees on services that are fundamental to life, rather than the ones that encourage healthier behavior and lower social costs. Just saying.

Marilyn Katz is an essayist, political activist and president of MK Communications, a public strategies communications firm.



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