Evanston businesses say proposed soda tax will not change consumer habits

Alan Perez, Reporter

Some Evanston businesses say they aren’t too worried about a potential tax on sugary drinks in Cook County.

In the executive budget recommendation for the 2017 fiscal year, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle proposed a one cent-per-ounce tax on sweetened beverages, including soda, juices and sports drinks.

The budget recommendation has been sent to the financial committee, where it awaits further approval. Similar measures are being considered across the country.

“It’s hard to imagine much of an impact,” said Jim Hurley of Bat 17, a local restaurant and bar. “My guess is that everything kind of levels out after a short period.”

Silas Lee, the son of the Evanston Grill owner, says his family’s business wouldn’t raise prices on soda. He said the Grill would pay the increased tax rather than charging customers for it, but doesn’t predict that this new cost would have an effect on their overall revenue.

“I can’t really say it’s hurting us,” Lee said. “It’s a flat tax rate for us; we don’t charge anything differently.”

As a consumer, Lee said he is unenthusiastic about the tax.

“My personal opinion is that I really do hate it,” Lee said.

Although some local businesses aren’t so worried about its effects in Evanston, a Cook County campaign organized around the issue claims the tax will raise prices on all goods.

In a statement on their website, the Cook County Against Beverage Taxes — a coalition of businesses and citizens who oppose the tax — said it would impact “the grocery budgets of those who can least afford it – compared to higher-income households.”

Cook County Public Information Officer Frank Shuftan said the proposed tax is necessary to balance an anticipated $174.3 million deficit in the 2017 fiscal year.

“The alternative to being able to close this budget deficit is a huge number of layoffs,” Shuftan said. “There’s already layoffs planned.”

Shuftan said a decision on Cook County’s proposed tax will likely be announced in the near future.

Though the potential tax is meant to balance the county’s budget, it’s also being proposed as a public health campaign. In the recommendation published online, Preckwinkle said the tax would provide needed revenue for county public health and safety services.

In the recommendation, Preckwinkle called the proposed tax a “difficult, but necessary decision.”

According to Shuftan, the county health system spent approximately $200 million on diseases related to the consumption of sugar, including diabetes, obesity and heart disease. Shuftan said the proposed tax should “produce a clear public health benefit for many communities where diseases are a huge problem.”

Hurley said he disagrees. He said he thinks the new tax won’t matter to people choosing whether to buy soda and calls it a “little bit of an overstep.”

“It just sounds like a convenient way to make it about trying to improve people’s lives when really they just want to add a tax,” Hurley said.

Hurley said even with the possible implementation of a tax on sweetened beverages, he doesn’t see people turning away from soda in the future.

Shuftan said that if approved, the tax would be an important first step.

“We have to start somewhere,” Shuftan said. “Doing something is clearly better than doing nothing.”

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