Cook County soda tax: The amount you pay could vary

On the first day of what is supposed to be a penny-per-ounce Cook County tax on sweetened beverages, the amount actually charged by restaurants and retailers for fountain drinks ran the gamut.

New taxes charged on nine 22- to 32-ounce fountain sodas ranged from zero to 32 cents on Wednesday. The drinks were bought in Arlington Heights and Mount Prospect.

No matter how much the added charge, customers were uniformly unhappy, and some restaurant owners and convenience store retailers were struggling to properly administer the fee.

While some retailers were offering as much as seven cents off the penny-per-ounce rate to account for ice in the cup, others were charging the full 32 cents on a 32-ounce drink.

Managers at Culver's in Arlington Heights said they added 20 cents to the cost of a 32-ounce large soda to make up for the tax they're paying on the syrup to make soda. Customers don't see the tax on Culver's receipts, though other retailers label it on sales slips as a sugar tax, sweetened tax or beverage surcharge.

A Burger King on Elmhurst Road in Mount Prospect was seemingly overcharging customers by a penny. A receipt for a 29-ounce medium soda showed a 30-cent sweetened beverage tax charge. Calls and emails to Burger King's corporate offices were not returned.

On a 30-ounce drink, McDonald's charged 23 cents for the new tax and 7-Eleven charged 28 cents. Speedway and Shell each charged 32 cents on a 32-ounce drink.

Several family-run lunch spots, like Johnnie's Beef and the Burger Baron in Arlington Heights, weren't even charging the tax to customers. Ultimately, they'll have to eat those losses.

Customers were already becoming disgruntled.

"It does matter, because you've got to eat, but next time I'm getting water," said Elgin resident Fernando Perez, who called the extra 30 cents on his soda at a Mount Prospect Subway "sticker shock."

Perez's response was not surprising to manager Nick Patel.

"I am definitely worried about this because they see the price for a soda and then it's 50 cents more with this tax and the sales tax. That will make them think again if they really want this drink," Patel said. "But it's Cook County, so what are you going to do?"

Soda tax examples

At Arlington Heights' Scooby's Red Hots, the eatery's long-standing free-refill policy is now dead. Owner Diane Psihogios said they'd lose too much money if they continued the policy. Depending on the cup size, refills are now 50 cents or a dollar.

"I'm only charging what we're getting charged and I'm afraid we're still going to get in trouble somehow," she said.

Wednesday afternoon, Psihogios was adding the tax by hand to receipts because there's no way to program the store's cash register.

Despite the new tax, most diners weren't dissuaded from imbibing in their favorite sugary drinks.

"It's a ridiculous overreach of government to try and curtail someone's eating habits," said Elk Grove Village resident Dan Brown, who was drinking a large diet soda at Johnnie's Beef. "It's just a money grab. Instead of being responsible with spending, they're creating new avenues to hurt small business."

The beverage tax was supposed to go into effect July 1, but a monthlong court battle delayed its start. Last week a judge ruled there was no constitutional basis to prevent the tax, which Cook County leaders pitched as a way to avoid layoffs and encourage healthier eating.

The tax applies to all sodas sold in the county as well as to other nonalcoholic artificially sweetened drinks. It does not apply to drinks made of 100 percent fruit and vegetable juices, milk and milk-base products, baby formula, most made-to-order coffees and teas, or medically prescribed products. The county expects to raise about $200 million a year from the tax.

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