By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

Less than two months after Chicago’s Cook County began collecting a tax on sugary drinks, local lawmakers on Wednesday repealed it. But advocates for the so-called soda tax said they would continue their push across the country.

“Despite today’s setback in Cook County, we remain optimistic that more communities will choose to reap the health and economic benefits that sugary drink taxes provide,” American Heart Association CEO Nancy Brown said in a statement. The AHA “will continue to stand up against industry to support these taxes that further our mission to build healthier lives, free of cardiovascular diseases and stroke.”

The Cook County Board of Commissioners voted 15-2 to repeal the penny-per-ounce levy on artificially and sugar-sweetened drinks. The tax stays in effect until the start of the new county fiscal year on Dec. 1.

It had been in place since January, but a lawsuit from Illinois retailers and backed by the beverage industry delayed collections until August. Its fate was sealed on Tuesday, when the board’s finance committee voted 15-1 to rescind what supporters had hoped would bring in $200 million a year for the county’s strapped budget.

[Chicago’s Cook County bridges budget gap with ‘soda tax’]

Board President Toni Preckwinkle has said eliminating the soda tax would cause an 11 percent across-the-board cut in programs providing health care to the poor and operating the criminal justice system.

Brown said the beverage industry’s “spin” won out over the issues of health.

“Leaders are defined by the choices they make,” Brown said. “Today’s decision … protects beverage industry profits at the expense of kids and families.”

Sarah Y. Song, M.D., told the packed audience at the Cook County Finance Committee meeting on Tuesday that sugary drinks cost the public dearly — in negative health effects.

“As a stroke neurologist, I see the devastation that chronic diseases can wreak on the body,” said Song, an assistant professor at Rush University Medical Center and an AHA volunteer. “I believe if people really understood the consequences of a little sugar, they would pause a little bit. The sweetened beverage tax offers that brief pause, that three- or four-second consideration to think, ‘Do I really need this particular drink right now?’”

The American Beverage Association backed the Can the Tax Coalition that spent millions on anti-tax ads, rallies and neighborhood canvassing. Tax supporters, including former New York City mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg, also poured millions into the fight.

Cook County, with 5.2 million residents, had been the country’s largest area to pass a sweetened beverage tax. According to the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, eight jurisdictions approved some form of the drink tax in the past few years, with Seattle’s city council vote in June being the most recent.

[Seattle becomes next city to tax sodas]

In May, however, Santa Fe, New Mexico, voters rejected a 2-cents-per-ounce tax referendum. And last week, Michigan legislators sent a measure to the governor intended to prevent local governments from passing soda taxes.

Still, Jim O’Hara, CSPI’s director for health promotion policy, said the Cook County vote won’t stop other communities from taking up the soda tax fight. He said the taxes work to change behavior and bring in needed revenues for health programs.

[Sugary drink taxes bubbling up worldwide]

It “will not change the momentum these common-sense policies have,” O’Hara said in a statement. “Evaluations of the first such U.S. tax, in Berkeley, California, and another from Mexico have shown decreased consumption of sugar drinks and increased consumption of healthy beverages, while providing needed revenues for other public health measures. Big Soda’s resistance to these policies is not new, but that will not change other communities’ consideration of them.”

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