Philadelphia Wants to Make Cash off People Buying Soda

Mayor Jim Kenney is proposing a 3-cent-per-ounce tariff on sugar-sweetened beverages.
(Photo: Sam Hodgson/Reuters)
Mar 2, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

The first skirmishes in a new soda-tax battle occurred on Tuesday. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, a Democrat, will seek a 3-cent-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. Kenney, who took office in January, will put the tax in front of the city council on Thursday as part of his 2016 budget recommendations. If passed, the tariff would be three-times higher than the soda tax that residents of Berkeley, California, passed by ballot measure in 2014.

With 1.5 million people—far larger than both Berkeley and San Francisco, where a soda-tax ballot measure was narrowly defeated in 2014—Philadelphia looks significantly different than recent soda-tax battlegrounds. The city has been here before. Former Mayor Michael Nutter failed to pass a tariff on sugary beverages in 2011. But diet-focused public-health measures have succeeded here too, which may bode well for the soda-tax proposal. As Civil Eats recently reported, an initiative to reduce the high sodium content of Chinese takeout spearheaded by Get Healthy Philly—a public-private partnership launched by the city’s Department of Public Health—has been a notable success, cutting the amount of salt used at participating restaurants by a third.

Of course, the tax is a stick, not a carrot, and beverage companies are not the willing partners that the 200 restaurants involved in the initiative were. The industry is already pushing back against the proposal. According to The Wall Street Journal, the American Beverage Association released a statement saying that “the industry provides thousands of good-paying jobs in the city and that residents already have been burdened with other tax increases.”

Thomas Farley, who headed up Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s city health department, now holds the same position in Philadelphia. While the courts ultimately blocked Farley and Bloomberg’s Big Gulp ban, there has been speculation that Mayor Kenney might pursue a soda tax because he appointed Farley.

While prior soda-tax battles have focused squarely on public-health issues, obesity doesn’t appear to be Mayor Kenney’s top concern. He needs more revenue to fund universal prekindergarten in the city, and the administration believes that the projected $400 million the special tax would raise over five years could go a long way toward making that campaign promise a reality. According to the Journal, the mayor’s office would flag $256 million for pre-K, $39 million to help finance the opening of 25 community schools, and additional revenue to be funneled into Philadelphia’s pension and parks funds.