The world has been a slave to sugar for so long that Cook County residents who are sour on a new penny-an-ounce sugar tax have missed the social justice implications of the measure.

While folks aren’t buying the health argument for taxing the ubiquitous substance directly linked to poor health, almost no one has made the connection to the role of sugar in creating systems of oppression that cause us to debate whether black lives (also) matter.

Sugar drove the slave trade. Everything from income inequality to unequal education outcomes are linked to how we handled things — or didn’t — after slavery ended, leaving white supremacy a part of everyday life.

“There’s definitely a relationship between sugar and slavery,” Josef Ben Levi, who teaches classical African civilization at Northeastern Illinois University, said of West Indies sugar cultivation. “The very foundation of France and its control of what became Haiti had to do with sugar. When Europeans got hold of sugar, they just freaked out.”

Now the Cook County Board of Commissioners has been cowed into considering repealing the sugar tax in October because folks can’t fathom freeing themselves from their unhealthy sugar fix. This controversy has also brought out an ugly provincialism among critics of New York billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s pro-sugar tax ad campaign, and has the characteristically unperturbed County Board President Toni Preckwinkle seemingly running scared for her political future.

Most of us are familiar with the role of cotton and slavery in making America rich. And whether we want to admit it or not, black bodies were the investment that enriched Southern states so much that they betrayed their country and fought a war to protect their investment in free labor. This ethos lives on in white supremacist violence and rhetoric, as debates over things like removing Confederate monuments keep these issues alive, with life-or-death implications for people on the losing end of racism, xenophobia, homophobia and sexism.

The Napoleonic Wars brought sugar into the picture, paving the way for Thomas Jefferson’s negotiation of the Louisiana Purchase and manifesting a destiny of sugar cultivation in rich Louisiana soil. Slaves better not sneak a piece of cane because that was “eating up somebody’s money,” Ben Levi said.

British author Jim Walvin explores the link between sugar, the slave trade and modern-day health in his upcoming “Sugar: The World Corrupted, From Slavery to Obesity”: “There is a link between the history of African slavery and modern-day racism,” Walvin said. “For three centuries and more, the West treated Africans as things — bought and sold them as items of trade — objects and commodities. That image and attitude embedded itself in Western society. Viewing people as things formed the foundations of a deep-seated racist view, which survived.”

Walvin says slavery made possible the mass production and consumption of sugar, which early on was revealed to be bad for health, especially dental health.

“Yet at the same time it provided energy for low-income laboring people,” according to Walvin. ‘Sweet tea and coffee and jams helped them do their work, while rotting their teeth. Obesity came much later with modern industrialized drinks and foods.”

Cook County residents facing sticker shock when they go to buy a case of soda, or who now add a grocery stop when they go to Indiana to fill up on cheap gas, are so focused on their fix they cannot see their role in a historic and economic through-line—or their power to stop the scourge of sugar and what we’ve been always been willing to do to get it, beverage industry be damned.

It would behoove Cook County taxpayers to consider the devastating effects of high fructose corn syrup and other forms of sugar, according to Dr. Terry Mason, CEO of Cook County Department of Public Health. Among processed sugar’s harmful effects is the human body’s inability to metabolize it, creating scar tissue in the lining of blood vessels that can lead to strokes and heart attacks. When the liver can’t break down sugar, it turns it into fat.

Maybe folks are so high on sugar, they can’t remember when cigarette smoke wafted everywhere until public health policies seriously curbed smoking and where the nasty habit could occur.

“We know what the health issues involved with tobacco are,” Mason says. “We are at the same point with food.”

The fact that Can the Tax is dueling the Bloomberg ad for hearts, souls and ‘sweet tooths’ shows Mason is right. We’re living in a toxic food environment, and just because something is available on a store shelf doesn’t mean it should be consumed. The food and beverage industry is primed to spend big money convincing us otherwise. Businesses that profit from our poor health, like kidney dialysis centers, count on certain communities to get sicker than most so they can build more.

“Besides the fact the industry is throwing smoke over people,” Ben Levi said, “not only obesity but diabetes is waiting to happen—basically, death. Our community doesn’t realize the danger that’s involved in high-fructose corn syrup. It’s not even real.”

The truth is, we get upset at tragedies we can see in real-time, like carnage from storms and street violence. It’s the slow death that lulls us into complacency on pushing smart social policy. With the obvious health and historical implications of sugar consumption, one wonders why more taxpayers aren’t using their agency to embrace a tax with the underlying value that life matters.

Deborah Douglas is an award-winning journalist who teaches at Northwestern University. She can be reached at or on Twitter at @deadlinedd.

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  1. Alas, the sophism in this article fails to justify the means of the tax: to recoup a county deficit. You have to hand it to the county in which we live, because they’d never cut a service or redundancy if they could invent another tax, and this is it.

    The fact that it is a Chicago Reporter writer does not particularly surprise me. While I don’t question the author’s accolades or past accomplishments, nor in particular challenge any other political assertions besides those concerning the soda tax and its rationale, the argument presented is fairly incredulous to the principle of good governance. It’s a principle Toni Prick–I mean Queen Taxwinkle seems to have long forgotten on her quest to be the nanny of Cook County’s residents, over three quarters of which are adults according to 2016 Census data.

    Taxwinkle’s arguments toward the Cook County tax are mostly comprised of rhetoric miming the age-old “think of the children” tactic. There are indeed health arguments to be had, posted prominently within the “Whereas” statements of the ordinance, but such arguments fail to consider that sugar-sweetened and “non-caloric”-sweetened beverages (e.g: Crystal Light, MiO) I’m scientifically probably going to get diabetes and liver failure from are not even taxed. Ever wonder why? The ordinance is certainly chok-full of exemptions and exclusions (like Frappuccinos or sugar in Dunkin Donuts coffee, which is a _lot_). Perhaps some of these otherwise-taxable beverages that the Commissioners consume.

    Slavery arguments are a unique argument to present in this context. At any other board hearing, you’d probably be laughed off the podium for bringing it up, but I’ll entertain it. Consider a tax on cotton then, something that many of us wear on a daily basis in one way or another, and something that still hand-harvested to its gatherer’s peril. In light of this, and in light of reparation for the injustices of American slaveowning and sharecropping over the years, why not tax in the County of Cook $10 per cotton shirt that you wear ($15 for L, $20 for XL)? Probably because it wouldn’t amount to more than a prosaic attempt at lip service towards Black Americans across the United States (who would otherwise not benefit from the tax), and a lot of folks would start buying polyester or head for Indiana.

    While one might find it hard to equate cigarettes (which are fairly hard to drink) to a sweetened beverage, consider a more commonplace excise tax: alcohol. A gallon of beer has an excise tax of 29 cents in the City of Chicago (Illinois Policy, “Chicagoans the most-taxed residents in Illinois”). A 99 cent 2 liter of soda, just barely half of a gallon, is taxed at 67 cents SBT (sweetened beverage tax), plus Chicago’s 13.25% sales tax on soft drinks. The total rate of tax is over 80%. And you wonder why Chicagoans (plus the other 2 and a half non-Chicago residents of Cook County) are getting punch drunk over being bamboozled yet again. For tax dollar to tax dollar, it is more economical for me to get absolutely plastered after buying a few cold ones with the boys (in Cook County) than it is for me to drink the equivalent cans of Arizona iced tea. I can tell you right now, Deborah, my liver’s gonna give out sooner on the booze.

    Rest assured, I am behooved, but not at all convinced because of your argumentation. If anything, consider fellow Chicago-area state representatives who added (and removed) themselves as sponsors to a statewide ban on sweetened beverages, HB4083. From Rep. Slaughter, to Mayfield, to Flowers, and to Davis — all Democrats, one could only be brought to wonder why they would do such a thing. Was it the result of “seeing the light” in big bad Big Soda (albeit forgetting the constituent who works for the distribution center and is now laid off because of the tax), or are these the result of Chicago-style threats? Inquiring minds would like to know.

    Inquiring minds should also know that Queen Taxwinkle laid off the Cook County employees she said she was going to lay off if the tax wasn’t in place, and also used her authority as board president to sue a nonprofit retail organization for opposing the tax in court. She even went so far as to tell state legislators to “[s]tick to their business and let us stick to ours”, while praising out-of-state billionaire Bloomberg’s battalion of, ironically, sugar-coated statements that go back to thinking about the children by posing them as human shields (“Bloomberg Soda Machine Cook County Pop Tax Ad”). What’s wrong, the hundreds of local hospitals and insurers “affected” by individuals and their soda consumption can’t create any fancy ads of their own?

    The tax was devised for the wrong reason, pushed under a false pretense, and sold under a faulty narrative. The kicker here is that while many of the middle class and upper class (like Preckwinkle, who probably just drinks Starbucks all day) have to pay for most sweetened beverages, the poor on SNAP don’t have to. The million SNAP benefiaries (CBR17031ILA647NCEN) in Cook County, representing virtually all demographics, get to continue chugging as I have HCFS-sweetened soda, damaging their liver, teeth, kidneys, heart, and bone health irreversibly and free of sweetened beverage tax or other sales tax. Presuming the person is also enrolled in Medicaid, our _federal_ tax dollars will go towards paying for him or her anyway.

    When the tax is repealed, be it by county or state, a countdown will begin to save what is left of Toni’s reputation until Election Day. This “Bilandic” (as the newspapers call it) failure of a tax is her brick in the wall as Board President, and I at least hope she knows it. The state senators she’s corralled will probably be glad they didn’t screw up by more publicly joining her on the tax to nowhere.

  2. If the government was truly concerned about people’s health, it should ban all products that contribute to disease and cause health problems. Sugar is not only in drinks, it exists in many other products as well, they should be equally taxed.

    Other products, alcohol, cigarettes, cheese, chips, pasta, bread, etc. can all cause health problems when consumed in mass quantities. As these can cause health issues, the should be banned. While we are at it, kick out businesses that provide unhealthy options. McDonalds, Burger King and Wendy’s should be forced to leave Cook county if they offer unhealthy options on their menus.

    Bottom line is the majority of people do not want a nanny state. That is exactly what this tax is. it is a nanny tax. The people do not need the government telling them how to live.

    1. Get a grip. You can still buy tobacco. You can still buy sugary drinks it just costs a few pennies more. The human body isn’t supposed to digest that much liquid sugar. It spikes your insulin causing obesity, diabetes and inability to cope with stress. Also, why is it Burger King’s right to feed us garbage, and not our right to demand food fit for humans? A lot of Chicago is a food desert except for 7-11s, bodegas and fast food, which serve pre-packaged crap.

      1. You missed my point. The government is backing commercials which state we are in a health crisis. The emphasis is that the tax will help us out of the health crisis. This tax will barely make a dent in people’s sugar consumption. IF we are in a crisis, then major changes need to take place.

        If the county was truly concerned about peoples healthy, the county board would want this tax to be 100% successful. If this tax was 100% successful, no one would purchase any of the products affected by the tax. If that were to happen, the county would receive $0 in taxes.

        My point is that the health issue is a cover for new ways to tax us. I’m sick of being lied to.

  3. The tax is too high, 20 cents on a 20 oz drink that costs $1ish before taxes is significant. Scale back the tax (ditto on bags) and continue the policy.

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