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STEINBERG: After Cook County scraps its soda tax, try a tax on deceit

Monday, October 09, 2017
Chicago Sun-Times
by Neil Steinberg

STEINBERG: After Cook County scraps its soda tax, try a tax on deceit

CHICAGO NEWS 10/09/2017, 07:27am
Sugary sodas in a store cooler

| AP file photo

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When ordinary politicians lie, and the lie blows up in their faces, do they shake their fists to the sky and exclaim, “But it looks so easy when Donald Trump does it!”?

I should call Toni Preckwinkle and ask.

The Cook County soda tax was never about battling obesity or diabetes. Rolled out Aug. 2, the penny-an-ounce tax was met with public outcry stoked by ferocious advertising by the soft drink industry.

The Cook County Board president kept insisting that, rather than a bald cash grab, the tax was instead a basic health measure, like flossing. Your kids are too fat, Preckwinkle told voters, and since you can’t keep the little brats from guzzling Mountain Dew, I’m going to help you by picking your pockets.

And to think people objected.


But all those TV commercials, some $5 million worth paid for by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg ignored one simple fact, and I wish I had thought to check this a month ago: These taxes don’t cut obesity.

Cook County isn’t the only fiefdom to attempt this stunt. About five years ago, over in Europe, nanny-state governments made a push to cut obesity. Turns out —who knew? — Europeans are also too fat, just like Americans. So Britain, France and other nations dabbled with jacking up taxes on fats and sugars, closely observed by an army of clipboard-wielding academics.

What did they find?

“The overall impact of a soft drink tax on calorie consumption is likely to be small,” concluded “The Effects of A Soft Drink Tax in the UK” published in the May 2015 issue of Health Economics.

Not only don’t the taxes cut obesity but — and this is so delicious, were it not so sad — when it comes to poor consumers in particular, increasing taxes on unhealthy foods like sweetened soda has one of those counterintuitive effects that make human nature such a delight to ponder.

A new study found that increasing tax on unhealthy food decreased the consumption of . . . wait for it . . . healthy food, as low-income consumers cut down on lettuce so they can continue to enjoy the junk they like best.

“A nontrivial number of respondents in the low-income group (39 percent of the total) behaved in a manner opposite to the intention of the policy,” noted “Distributional Impact of Fat Taxes and Thin Subsidies,” published last month in The Economic Journal, referring to a study in France. “They allocated a larger share of their budget towards unhealthy food and a smaller share towards healthy food”

Ah people, God love ’em.

Of course there are lots of studies and, not being a politician, I must be fair and mention some studies support such taxes; Denmark, for instance, seems to have blunted butter consumption with a high tax. But still, its most pronounced effect is not improving health but raising money.

And that’s an important effect. Cook County is broke, and somebody has to pony up money to run the place. Though why the burden should fall unduly on the shoulders of poor people who bring pleasure to their lives with Coca-Cola on a hot day is beyond me. Plus, I have to mention, from firsthand knowledge, that the tax was also a logistical and PR nightmare for supermarkets, who had to administer the tax.

Customers were alienated. I still can hardly slink guiltily into Sunset Foods without feeling like the assistant manager is giving me the stink eye for trying to get back the Cook County tax they unfairly charged me on a case of flavored, though not sweetened, bubbly water.

Now the soda tax is pretty much cooked, with 12 of the 17 commissioners on the County Board Finance Committee pledged to repeal the tax when the it meets Tuesday. The full board is scheduled to vote Wednesday.


I guess the finance committee will just have to find something else to tax. It’s a shame they can’t conjure up a way to tax lying; the receipts would be enormous, though I imagine our political leaders would complain of the cost to their pocketbooks. To which we say: Well boo-hoo, just suck it up. It’s for your own benefit.

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