Cook County

Confusion Marks Start of New Sugary Beverage Tax as Shoppers Say They're Being Taxed for Water, Juice

Hours after Cook County's controversial sweetened beverage tax took effect Wednesday, confusion and frustration hit as shoppers across the area reported being taxed for things like water and juice. 

The new tax was only supposed to apply to drinks sweetened with sugar or a substitute, but with no official list of products to be taxed, the decision on which drinks are taxed is left up establishments. 

"I brought it up to the clerk that this is 100 percent juice and this is water and these are exempt," said shopper Mike Baiker. "She had stated there are problems with the computers and she can't change it."

Others reported being taxed for drinks like La Croix, or sparking water, which promotes itself as being sugar free with no artificial sweeteners. 

Thortons said in a statement that it had developed a specific program to identify and tax items under the new measure, but "upon investigation, we discovered that certain items have been labeled incorrectly."

"At Thorntons, our guests are our number one priority," their statement read.
"We sincerely apologize for the inconvenience and will refund anyone who have been incorrectly taxed. Guests should contact Thorntons Customer Service at 1-866-473-0017. We are working diligently to fix our system so the situation is rectified immediately."

Beginning at midnight, the controversial tax on sugary drinks rolled out across the county following weeks of arguments in and out of court.

The measure was originally supposed to be implemented on July 1, but its rollout was delayed after opponents filed a lawsuit against the proposal, ultimately resulting in more than 300 county employees being given layoff notices

Judge Daniel Kubasiak lifted the temporary restraining order that halted the measure on Friday, with collection slated to begin Wednesday. 

Now, the Illinois Retail Merchant Association has filed an appeal of that decision, though the county said it plans to defend the tax vigorously. 

The new tax will collect an extra penny per ounce of any drink sweetened with sugar or a substitute sold in Cook County, and is expected to raise $67.5 million in new revenue by Nov. 30, according to county estimates. [[430937033, C]]

The cost to consumers will be 12 cents per can of soda and 67 cents per two-liter bottle, with the revenue helping to fund services, including health care, as the county faces a budget deficit of nearly $174.3 million.

As stores begin to charge the new tax, employees are tasked with ensuring cash registers are updated and ready to make the shift. 

"I’ve got about two or three employees, for the last two or three days, that that’s been their full time job," said Marty Sandoval, who owns the La Chiquita grocery and restaurant on Pulaski.

Sandoval said he's also apprehensive of the drop in sales for the three of his four stores located in Cook County. It's a fear for many county retailers who worry shoppers who can go elsewhere will. 

"I don’t know what the sales drop will be," he said. "I know there will be a sales drop... That’s going to be tough on us."

But aside from the revenue hole the tax is expected to fill for the county, health advocates also say it serves another purpose. 

"This is a way to get people to think differently about their drinks and choose healthy ones," said Elissa Bassler, CEO of the Illinois Public Health Institute. 

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