THE LOOP — Store owners and a merchant group filed a lawsuit Tuesday to block Cook County's sweetened beverage tax that would add a penny per ounce to the cost of sweetened drinks starting Saturday.
Hours before the suit was filed, hundreds of retailers, workers and lobbyists from merchant and beverage groups rallied in front of the Thompson Center on Tuesday chanting, "Can the tax!"
The Illinois Retail Merchants Association said it wants the beverage tax — adding a penny per ounce tax for every sugary drink sold and projected to bring in about $75 million annually to the county — repealed. But health advocates say the tax will help cut down on consumption of the drinks, which have contributed to health problems "plaguing" the county, and help pay the county's costs toward treatment of those problems.
Tanya Triche Dawood, vice president of the merchants association, told reporters that the tax was "frankly unlawful" because it treats sweetened drinks sold in a bottle differently than sweetened drinks prepared to order.
The merchants association will ask a judge Wednesday morning to block the tax, which is being implemented in an "unconstitutionally vague" way, Triche Dawood said.
"This has been a complete mess," Triche Dawood said. "We had no choice but to bring this lawsuit."
Dubbed the "pop tax," the fee — approved by the Cook County Board of Commissioners by one vote in November — also applies to hundreds of beverages beyond soft drinks.
The beverage industry lobby, which opposes the tax, has circulated a sample list of affected drinks, which runs to 11 pages. The list includes juice drinks, sports drinks like Gatorade, flavored water with zero calories or sweeteners, iced tea, pop and lemonade.
The American Beverage Association, which organized the protest outside the Thompson Center, called the tax "far-reaching and excessive."
Abdul Shabazz, food service manager of Jackpot Mini Mart in Roseland, said 30 percent of his mart's sales come from sugary beverages, and 2-liter bottles of pop are the most popular items.
"We are bracing for this negative impact," Shabazz said, adding that many of his customers are on a fixed income and don't have the ability to travel out of Cook County.
"They will be the ones bearing the tax," Shabazz said.
However, supporters of the tax — including the American Heart Association — said it would improve the health of Cook County residents by discouraging them from drinking sugary beverages and by funding public health programs.
Julia Kersey, a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association, issued a statement in response to the rally.
"A sweetened drink tax is a healthy choice for Cook County. Sugary drinks are the largest source of added sugar in the American diet, and that sugar is a major contributor to the health issues that are plaguing our residents," Kersey said.
Kersey said other areas with beverages taxes in place are seeing a decline in consumption of sugary drinks and an increase in purchases of healthier options like water and milk.
"The revenue raised by the Cook County sweetened beverage tax will allow the county to maintain and improve its healthcare and public safety systems, and it will prevent the elimination of more than 1,300 county positions over the next three years. This tax makes sense for the physical health of our county, as well as the financial health," Kersey said.
The tax is expected to raise $224 million a year for Cook County, which the county needs to keep its books out of the red.
Cook County, which has 5.2 million residents, would become the largest municipality in the nation to impose a tax on sugary drinks once it goes into effect.
"This tax, they said, is about balancing a diet," County Board Commissioner John Fritchey said. "It's not about that. It's about balancing a budget. We are not bringing revenue into Cook County, we are chasing people out of Cook County," Fritchey said to the cheering crowd.
Harish Doshi, a 7-Eleven franchisee, who was putting signs up in his store at 1508 N. Damen Ave. in Wicker Park on Monday to inform customers of the upcoming tax, was not at the rally but supports the protesters.
The tax will hike the price of a 2-liter bottle by 68 cents and a six-pack by 72 cents.
Slurpees at 7-Eleven will cost 40 cents more after the tax is imposed.
Doshi said he suspects the tax will not upset customers at a convenience store as much as stores where they are buying in bulk or large amounts of soda.
"People that need to have sugar will do it," Doshi said. "Your body needs sugar; you will go for it. If it is a matter of convenience, they are not going here to the next county to buy sugary drinks."
Signs warning of price increases at 7-Eleven. [DNAinfo/Alisa Hauser]