Politics & Policy

Chicago Repeals Its Soda Tax

Pepsi soda is shown on display in Compton, Calif., January 10, 2017. (Mike Blake/Reuters)
Have even liberals had enough of the nanny state?

It didn’t take long for Chicagoans to send the message to their legislators. Though the tax went into effect only on August 2, the general outrage over the one-cent-per-once surcharge on soda and sugary drinks was sufficient to force the Cook County Board of Commissioners to rescind it. Coming on the heels of the landslide defeat of a soda tax twice as large in Santa Fe, N.M., in a special referendum held in May, the Chicago vote may be a turning point in the effort by left-wing activists to force Americans to give up their guilty pleasures. If even liberal enclaves are saying enough is enough to the food-and-drink police, then it’s possible that the long march to the nanny state may be halted.

As with the 58–42 percent defeat for the Santa Fe tax, the 15–1 vote in Cook County illustrated just how unpopular the measure was. The law was billed as both a health measure to address a national obesity epidemic and a fiscal move to support the county’s hospitals, clinics, and intervention programs. In Santa Fe, as much of a liberal enclave as Chicago, the tax was slated to pay for pre-K education programs. But in both cities, the notion of elites seeking to change the dietary habits of middle- and working-class citizens by picking their pockets to fund pet projects, however well-intentioned they might have been, created a backlash.

But as might have been expected, activists aren’t listening to the people. Instead, they are blaming the malevolent influence of “Big Soda.”

It’s true that the American Beverage Association, as well as Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and other soft-drink manufacturers, have spent heavily to support resistance to soda taxes. That was the conceit of an op-ed in the New York Times by the organizers of one “healthy food” lobby: Soda-tax advocates would win if they were better at getting their message out to a public deceived by a self-interested industry that was buying public opinion.

But the Left’s convenient explanation for their defeats in Chicago and Santa Fe is as flat as day-old Coke. The truth about these soda-tax battles is that plenty of big spending comes from the Left as well. In this case, billionaire Michael Bloomberg, who imposed one of the first soda taxes on New York City during his time as mayor, has been shoveling money into every such effort elsewhere. Bloomberg spent $10 million on ad campaigns in Chicago promoting the soda tax, as well as unknown amounts on lobbyists and mailings. He has promised to support commissioner candidates who back his soda tax in next year’s elections and to oppose those who thwarted him. He’s not alone; other major liberals and health foundations are also weighing in to tilt the playing field in favor of soda taxes.

But as was the case in Santa Fe, the liberal media blitz failed to influence people in a city where the Republican party barely exists. Why did support for the soda tax, which passed so easily less than a year ago, collapse so quickly?

One explanation is a matter of basic economics. The idea behind a soda tax is that it will decrease soda consumption, raise revenue, or both. But people aren’t necessarily the hostages of their local nannies: Many are capable of shopping in neighboring jurisdictions where soda prices are lower. In Chicago, that meant a shopping boom in nearby Indiana. As a result, the revenue that Democratic politicians thought they would raise has proven elusive, and not just because their constituents are actually drinking less soda.

Just as important, inner-city residents who can’t easily shop in the suburbs have been made to understand the regressive nature of the tax. In Santa Fe, poorer Hispanic districts voted even more heavily against the soda tax than did white upper-middle-class areas. Instead of blaming their opponents for having the temerity to speak up against them, the Left needs to understand that even Democrats don’t like getting pushed around by their betters.

Elites who disparage the guilty pleasures of the rest of society think they are doing everyone a service by stopping unhealthy behaviors.

Elites who disparage the guilty pleasures of the rest of society think they are doing everyone a service by stopping unhealthy behaviors. But the spirit of the Boston Tea Party is apparently still alive even in places where the modern anti-tax Tea Party has few supporters. Even reliably liberal voters understand that soda and other sin taxes aren’t so much a public-health measure as an infringement on their freedom to eat and drink what they like. The wave of resentment the Chicago tax created wasn’t so much the function of “Big Soda” ads as it was the natural reaction of voters who are fed up with being told how to live by intellectuals and their well-heeled financiers.

With Bloomberg backing them, the shock troops of the food-and-drink police are undaunted by their setbacks and are seeking to impose similar soda taxes elsewhere. But the rest of the country should hear the lessons from Santa Fe and Chicago loud and clear. Americans won’t let themselves be taxed into giving up their soda without a fight.