Big Soda scores victory as Chicago-area tax repealed

WASHINGTON/CHICAGO (Reuters) - Government officials in Chicago’s home county voted on Wednesday to repeal a tax on sugary drinks, a win for a soda industry that has faced criticism from public health officials who link excessive consumption to health epidemics like obesity.

The 15-2 vote to end the tax starting Dec. 1 was largely expected after preliminary action to do so by commissioners in Cook County, Illinois, but was significant as the first such move since a string of U.S. cities last year voted in favor of such taxes.

The penny-per-ounce sugary drinks tax, which narrowly passed in November 2016, has been under attack from the soda lobby, retailers and others, who said it put an unfair burden on the county’s poorest citizens and hampered local businesses.

Last year saw a number of victories for public health advocates in favor of sugar and soda taxes, which are designed to reduce consumption of sugary drinks and boost local revenues, from Oakland, California, to Philadelphia. The World Health Organization, which has backed such levies, said in a report this week that child and teen obesity has soared tenfold in four decades.

There have been similar pushes across the world. Mexico introduced a tax in 2014, and the United Kingdom is rolling out a similar levy.

Repeal is not unheard of, but this marks the first time a major U.S. region has walked back from an implemented tax since public health efforts gathered pace in 2014-2016. In 2010, Washington state repealed soda and candy taxes.

The American Beverage Association, which represents soda manufacturers like Coca-Cola Co, PepsiCo Inc and Dr Pepper Snapple Group Inc, applauded the move, saying it signaled a momentum shift.

“People are catching on to what these taxes are: money grabs. And they are telling their elected officials there’s a better way that doesn’t hurt working people,” said Lauren Kane, a spokeswoman for the association.

The tax made Cook County a battleground for expensive lobbying campaigns from the soft drinks industry, as well as former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who bankrolled ads promoting the tax.

In response to the move, Jim O’Hara, director of Health Promotion Policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest said: “The industry’s opposition to these taxes is not new. Their willingness to write big checks is not new. Sometimes they are going to win. More time than not they are going to lose.”

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Reporting by Chris Prentice and Karen Pierog; Editing by Jonathan Oatis