Cook County progressives should be responsive to and concerned by Big Soda’s enormous amounts of political spending leading up to the Soda Tax repeal vote by the Cook County Board on October 10th. Passed by the Cook County Board in 2016, the soda tax has been subject to legal challenges, a series of publicity attacks and finally Can The Tax, a corporate funded astroturf coalition backed by the American Beverage Association (ABA) and supported by other pro-business elements, such as the Illinois Restaurant Association (IRA) and Illinois Retail and Merchant Association (IRMA).
As a labor veteran, I can tell you, the aforementioned trade associations are not aligned with the interests of working people. They oppose almost all labor, consumer, and environmentally friendly initiatives advocated for by progressives in the city and county. While these lobby groups claim to represent local small businesses, they work on behalf of many large corporations. These trade groups act as a buffer for many of their high profile members in order to act on their interest, while keeping their brands in good PR standing with the public. However, in the case of the soda tax, not only are big soda and other interest groups supporting the Can the Tax coalition, corporations such as Pepsi, Coca Cola and Dr Pepper have given max amounts of direct political money to Illinois PACs opposed to candidates supporting the soda tax.
While similar arguments have been made by these trade groups against minimum wage and sick time ordinances, (i.e. the ordinances will hurt small local businesses or drive local business out of the City/County altogether) have largely fell on deaf ears in the past, big soda and their allies have successfully found a pro-business wedge issue that so far has largely resonated with the public. While critiques can be made about adding another regressive tax on county residents or the need for the county board to have done greater engagement and public education before rolling out this tax, we should look south to our neighbors in Mexico, who passed a national soda tax that is already creating some very positive public health benefits for the country.
I have worked in various low income communities throughout the county, and my anecdotal experiences reflect the research showing communities plagued by preventable health conditions and disease, including type 2 diabetes. In fact, according to a report conducted by the Collaborative for Health Equity in Cook County there is a direct correlation between median income and life expectancy. “People living in Chicago-area neighborhoods with a median income greater than $53,000 per year had a life expectancy that was almost 14 years longer than that of people living in areas with a median income below $25,000 per year.”
As progressives we should heed the Collaborative for Health Equity’s call to remedy the main cause of our public health crisis, poverty. We can do this by supporting and working with labor & community rights groups who are organizing people for power in their communities and within our political institutions. This includes building local neighborhood organizations working for electoral power along with joining coalition groups such as Reclaim Chicago and United Working Families who are offering alternative and progressive political visions for our city and county. This also means understanding that supporting the cause of public health is intrinsically linked to demands to labor rights, living wages and affordable healthcare and housing. While locally, the current political environment doesn’t allow for a progressive income tax, we should continue to organize and demand the taxing of the rich to support our public institutions while also demanding greater accessibility to healthcare. This includes demanding support for institutions like the Department of Health, who can increase their role in educating the public about the harm overconsumption of soda creates.
While the Michael Bloomberg’s of the world are of some help in countering Big Soda’s dishonest publicity campaigns, progressives should not be silent and give Big Soda a pass as they pour in political money to interfere and undermine our local democratic institutions and governance. In particular, we should support politicians like Cook County Commissioner Chuy Garcia, who is one of a number of progressive local leaders to have come under attack for his vote in support of community health. Commissioner Garcia, who ran against mayor 1%, Rahm Emanuel, in 2015 at the behest of progressive labor & community groups, has a proven track record of supporting community groups and their struggle for economic and community rights. As progressives, we need to support elected officials who have led on these issues and should speak up against corporate interest and their lobby groups who are smearing politicians like Garcia and who have time and time again proven to be reactionary and conservative entities opposed to every inch of progress for working people in our communities.
The soda tax’s unpopularity makes it a difficult issue for progressives to engage with, but progressives have a responsibility to challenge corporate power in Cook County. Our messaging should be one of challenging Big Soda and their partners in their undemocratic crusade to undermine our local government and public health. Ultimately they are only protecting their bottom line at the expense of public health, and we should assist with educating the public on their ongoing pernicious behavior. We should be unequivocal about the need to address inequality as the central contributor to our public health crisis, but at the same time be supportive of measures like the soda tax. For those in public sector unions and community members who support public workers, we should also recognize and be responsive to the Can the Tax’s anti public sector rhetoric and call out Commissioners like Richard Boykins, who have made it explicit his response to repealing the soda tax will be austerity.
Last but not least, this is a racial justice as well an issue of working families and we should not easily forget this. As has been recently noted by local journalist Debra Douglas, the sugar industry in it’s inception was rooted in and flourished because of the institutions of slavery and racism. We should not forget this history or ignore Big Soda’s role in unscrupulously pushing unhealthy products in communities of color and working communities.
As a young Latino from a working class neighborhood of Joliet, Illinois, I remember attending high school and being forced to watch Channel 1 as part of my high school “education.” While sold to school parents as educational, it was nothing more than a clever scheme by fast food, big soda types and other corporations to advertise to millions of children on a daily basis. Fast forward several years when, while living in my first apartment, I discovered my roommate experiencing one of several diabetic comas he would suffer in his early 20’s. I will never forget the loud and disturbing snoring sound as he gasped for air, completely unconscious and unaware. Not wanting him to have to pay for an ambulance, several of us carried his body to a vehicle and drove him to the hospital. Although he was not a heavy person, we struggled to carry his limp, unconscious body. When we arrived at the emergency room, the nurses simply gave us the look and smiled, “here we go again” as they prepared to treat him.
I would later find out my roommate was not only a type 2 diabetic, but he had also been a heavy soda drinker in his childhood. He would require dialysis and a kidney transplant in his late 20’s. I’m not a doctor and can’t say for certain that his situation was related to soda consumption, but an educated guess might lead to the conclusion that his was a preventable health condition. Being of the same age group, I harken back to the bombardment of advertising we both lived through and wondered if this contributed to his very serious health condition.
Nobody likes regressive taxes, but if these taxes can change behavior and consumption habits, especially in our communities of color which are the most vulnerable to multi-million dollar marketing campaigns, is the tax worth it? If the tax here can achieve even a small degree of the lifelong health benefits to impoverished youths (as it did in Mexico), I say that’s worth a penny per ounce.
Roberto Jesus Clack has organized for over a decade in Chicago in the labor, housing and peace movement. He currently is a member of Rise Together, a neighborhood independent political organization based on the lower west side of Chicago. All opinions expressed are his own.