Editorial: Repeal of sweetened beverage tax is right thing to do

  • Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle speaks at a news conference in defense of the county's sweetened-beverage tax.

    Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle speaks at a news conference in defense of the county's sweetened-beverage tax. Kerry Lester/klelster@dailyheral.com

The Daily Herald Editorial Board

President Toni Preckwinkle and the Cook County Board sidestepped an opportunity last week to repeal the unpopular new beverage tax, but opponents kept the issue alive by sending it to the Finance Committee. On Oct. 10, members of that body, meeting as a county board committee of the whole, again will have the chance to do the right thing. We, and the overwhelming proportion of Cook County citizens who oppose this tax, must keep the pressure on to try to see that they do.

By "right thing," of course, we mean repeal the tax. As we've said before, this ill-conceived mechanism is being deceptively marketed as a health initiative, targets only one source of the poison it claims to identify, is complicated for businesses to manage and nearly incomprehensible for consumers to follow, cynically exempts the poor from its supposed health benefits and is intrusively arbitrary, singling out sugar -- and only one form of it, at that -- over a wide range of potentially unhealthy substances ranging from caffeine to bread.

Preckwinkle insists that the tax is intended to protect county residents' health, and a multimillion-dollar advertising blitz would have us believe the health of our children is at stake. We won't argue that sweetened beverages -- as well as sugary cereals, sugary baking goods and a whole host of other sweetened products -- aren't bad for our health. But what we do argue is that fixating on this one form of unhealthy eating is subjective, unfair and costly. It's a misguided approach to special taxation.

And that's even if you accept the premise that the tax's prime motivation is health. We don't. Neither do most county citizens -- more than eight out of 10 in one recent survey -- and the notion is further belied by Preckwinkle's own comments vowing severe budget cuts in the event of repeal.

Not that the health component of the issue is insignificant. To the contrary, if this controversy has any upside, it is that it has drawn attention to a matter that most people need to take more seriously.

And, not that the budget bind in which the county finds itself isn't real. If the tax is repealed, $200 million in cuts or revenues will have to be found someplace. But sweetened beverages are not that place. If it comes to that, sincere pension reform would be a much more appropriate and more productive area of attention.

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Suburban county commissioners already recognize this. Republicans Tim Schneider, of Bartlett, and Sean Morrison, of Palos Park, were opponents from the beginning and are among co-sponsors of the repeal drive. But others apparently still need convincing.

Toni Preckwinkle is as strong and able a county board president as Cook County has seen in decades. She has instilled needed discipline in the budgeting process, and we disdain the thought that her intransigence on this deeply unpopular issue could come to define her otherwise positive tenure or teach her a lesson that a single snowstorm taught former Chicago Mayor Michael Bilandic.

There are times when doing the right thing means standing up against popular opposition. There are also times when good leadership means listening to the overwhelming cries and complaints of those you serve. This is the latter. We urge Preckwinkle and those who side with her to listen to Cook County businesses and citizens and repeal the beverage tax.

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