On July 1, consumers living in Cook County, a good chunk of Chicagoland, were greeted with a new tax, one that slapped a penny surcharge on every ounce of sweetened beverage, which included items such as soda, sports drinks, flavored water, energy drinks, pre-made sweetened coffee and tea with less than 50 percent milk content, among others.
The tax was also applied to syrups used in dispensing sweetened beverages, be it from a vending machines or fountain drink unit. Of course, the declared motivation was to protect the health of all Chicagoland residents.
The fact that the measure only passed when Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle voted to break an 8-8 tie, tells you something about how controversial the move was. Given that the vote took place on Nov. 10, 2016, folks opposed to the tax, such as retailers and beverage suppliers, had time to mobilize and launch a campaign calling for its repeal.
In doing so, the sweetened beverage tax has developed into a brouhaha comparable to the recent NFL bended knee during the national anthem controversy.
From restraining orders to threats of laying off county workers, the tax has generated plenty of discussion. No surprise, given that Chicago’s Windy City moniker stems from politicians voicing their opinions.
It’s clear, however that the tax is meant to be a revenue generator for the county, $220 million to be exact. Those funds are needed to support services, such as hospital care and public safety, Preckwinkle explains. And let’s not forget the “We’re doing it for your benefit” theme, since sugar is so bad for you.
Well, I guess it’s OK for folks living outside Cook County to continue buying sweetened beverages without taxation. I mean, they’re not obese at all. Of course, that was the “real” purpose of the tax, and not additional revenue.
It seems Chicagoland consumers aren’t buying it, both literally and figuratively. According to poll conducted by We Ask America, 86 percent of respondents in Cook County favor repealing the tax.
In addition, many consumers living close to the border of Cook County are driving over to stores in adjoining counties to save some cash, severely affecting retail sweetened beverage sales in Cook County.
The health issue has, however, drawn “outsiders” such as former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has spent in excess of $5 million on ads supporting the tax. Of course, the beverage industry has also manned up to present its case with its Can the Tax coalition.
From my perspective, there are two distinct issues: revenue generation; and sugar as an “evil” ingredient in foods and beverages. I’ve always been against labeling food as “good” vs. “bad.” I’m still sticking to the mantra, affirming that there are no “bad” foods, just sloppy lifestyles.
What are the three most important tools to battle obesity? Education, education and education. It starts with the parents at home, continues on through school and extends into the food and beverage as well as foodservice industries.
Recently, the NPD Group, a Chicago-based research company, came out with a report dubbed Impact of Sugar Concern on Consumption Behavior: What We Say vs. What We Do.
According to NPD, the average person consumes almost three times the recommended amount of sugar every day, or what amounts to 66 pounds of sugar per person annually. Nonetheless, “over half of U.S. adults and teens say they’re trying to get less sugar in their diet, apparently the operative word is trying,” the authors of the report declare.
The decision on what to keep and what not to keep eating in terms of sugary foods varies by generations with some acting on their concern and others just saying their concerned but not acting on it, NPD says. The report cites “Older Boomers and Silent G.I.s, who may be managing diabetes or other illnesses,” as an example of a generation that is determined to cut its sugar intake.
“The key takeaway for food and beverage marketers is that ‘yes’ consumers are concerned with the amount of sugar in their diets, but they are still leaving room in their diets for some sweet indulgence,” says David Portalatin, NPD’s vice president, food industry analyst, and author of Eating Patterns in America. “If there are nutritional benefits to a more sugary product, call that out. If not, appeal to the consumer who wants more indulgence. The point is, it’s not a one-size-fits-all marketplace. It’s a matter of finding the consumers who are the right fit.”
As our news headlines attest, it’s really easy to blame someone or something for our problems. I would simply remind folks of that lovable cartoon character, Pogo, when he said, “We have met the enemy and it is us.”