'Soda tax' a tough sell for Cook County retailers in border towns
Matt Eckols wasn't happy to find a 24-ounce energy drink on Wednesday morning in Elgin cost more than usual -- 24 cents extra, to be precise.
The Elgin resident, who has a daily soda and twice-weekly energy drink habit, shopped at the 7-Eleven at 811 E. Chicago St. in the city's Cook County portion, just east of the border with Kane County.
Cook County's new penny-per-ounce tax might prompt him to get his sugary drinks elsewhere, but it also could lead him to reduce or kick his habit, he said.
"I shouldn't be buying this anyway," Eckols said.
Cook County on Wednesday enacted the tax on nonalcoholic drinks that have sugar or artificial sweeteners. Whether it sticks remains unknown, because the Illinois Retail Merchants Association is appealing a judge's decision to dismiss a lawsuit that temporarily blocked the tax.
Elgin and Barrington are among towns where consumer choice easily comes into play regarding the tax because they are only partially in Cook County. Part of Barrington is in Lake County, and most of Elgin is in Kane County.
Darshak Patel, manager of the Elgin 7-Eleven frequented by Eckols, said he expects the tax to prompt his customers to buy cheaper sweetened drinks in Kane County or elsewhere. He won't know about a potential financial hit until he does his accounting next month.
"It's not a good idea," Patel said, adding he's already taken a hit from Cook County's cigarette tax. "We are losing money."
Citgo Barrington, a gasoline station and convenience store in the Lake County portion of the village on Hough Street just a couple of blocks from Cook County, expects to profit from customers looking to avoid the sweetened beverage tax.
Sales clerk Abdul Shafique said the Citgo has received deliveries of additional soda and other beverages in anticipation of a spike in demand. Despite the projected sales increase, Shafique said he's against the new tax and hopes there is exact accounting of where the new revenue is going.
Shafique said he expects businesses on the Cook County side of Barrington to be hurt by the new tax.
"I'm pretty sure in the long term -- not right now -- but long term, they might end up losing customers or something," he said during a break at the Citgo.
Michael Shipley still was trying to get a handle Wednesday morning on exactly how to apply what's commonly called the "soda tax" on products at his downtown Barrington coffee shop in Cook County. Shipley is managing partner of a company that owns Cook Street Coffee a stone's throw from where Lake County begins.
"I suppose if there's some ambiguity, we'll just kind of go line by line through it," Shipley said amid a bustling crowd. "We have three or four different soda selections, and they're just kind of these bottled craft sodas."
Shipley said he doesn't expect to be dinged that much by the new tax because the bulk of his sales come from exempt categories including coffee and on-demand specialty drinks prepared by a server.
At Trax Depot Cafe in Barrington's Metra station just south of the county line, a sign posted by the cash register alerted customers to the new tax. Trax Depot Cafe employee Jane Prichard said sales are not expected to drop because patrons often make impulse buys at the business.
Similar signs were in Elgin businesses. Bina Revi, manager of the Dunkin' Donuts at 812 E. Chicago St., said most customers don't want paper receipts, so it's best to advise them of the tax increase so they don't think they were overcharged.
"A lot of people are not aware of this," she said. "I think they will buy less soda when they find out."
Manuel Roman, manager of Supermercado La Salsa on Villa Street in Elgin, said while he understands taxes are needed to pay for services, excessive taxation hurts businesses.
"People are saying, 'Oh no, we are not going to buy anymore soda, or we are going to buy less soda, or we are going to go to another county,'" he said. "It's hurting the economy for us."
Whatever the economic consequences, it's hard to argue that drinking fewer sugary drinks is a bad thing, said Chris Zim of Oak Brook, also a customer at the 7-Eleven on the Cook-Kane line in Elgin.
"I do drink a lot of energy drinks. One or two per day," Zim said. "I'm trying to cut back, so maybe this will help me."
What drinks are included in Cook County's 'soda' tax?Juice: Artificially flavored fruit and vegetable juices will be taxed, but not juices that are 100 percent natural.
Milk: Milk or drink products made with at least 50 percent milk -- or a soy, rice or similar milk substitute -- or with milk as the first listed ingredient are not taxed.
Coffee and tea: You can still get your morning cup at the drive-through without being taxed, even if you ask for packets of sugar. But bottled coffee and tea products with sweeteners are taxed.
Formula: Infants won't be hit with the tax.
Medical and nutritional: Drinks intended to provide therapeutic meal replacements, help with weight reduction or prevent childhood dehydration are exempt. That means drinks like Ensure or Pedialyte aren't taxed, while Gatorade is.
Supplements: Syrups and powders that sweeten water -- like Kool-Aid or Crystal Light -- aren't taxed.
Source: Cook County