A Major U.S. City Is on the Verge of Passing a Soda Tax

Philadelphia is a step away from having the most aggressive sugar-sweetened beverage tax in the country.
Coca-Cola bottles; the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. (Photos: Richard Levine/Corbis via Getty Images; Celine/Flickr)
Jun 9, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Could it be? A major American city is on the cusp of passing a landmark tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.

Momentum behind taxing the sort of sugary drinks that have been fingered as a major culprit in America’s ongoing obesity epidemic has been growing for more than a decade, but so far the only such tax passed by any U.S. city has been in Berkeley, California—population 117,000.

Compare that with Philadelphia—population 1.5 million. This week, a preliminary vote by a committee of the Philadelphia City Council gave the OK to a new soda tax, and it seems all but certain to pass the full council in a vote scheduled for next Thursday.

While the tax of 1.5 cents per ounce is half the 3-cents-per-ounce tax originally proposed by Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, it would still best Berkeley’s tax by half a cent per ounce. Moreover, the tax has been expanded to include not just sugar-laden beverages such as full-calorie sodas and energy drinks, but beverages containing artificial sweeteners as well, such as diet sodas, which have increasingly come under scrutiny for their link to weight gain and other health ills.

Perhaps more notable than the idea of a major American city being on the verge of passing the biggest soda tax in the U.S. is how Philadelphia got here—and in particular, how Kenney packaged his proposed tax to make it more palatable to tax-wary citizens.

Berkeley’s successful—and impressive—campaign to pass its soda tax largely centered on well-worn health-related arguments, the sort of nanny-state finger wagging that has often derailed well-meaning public health campaigns. Against the odds—and millions of dollars spent by the soda industry to torpedo it—Berkeley’s pro-tax coalition prevailed, with politicians promising to use the revenue to fund programs designed to counter the effects of overconsumption of sugary drinks.

Contrast that with the Philadelphia approach, in which Kenney has campaigned for his soda tax by promising to use the estimated tax revenue of $91 million per year to dramatically improve residents’ lives—not by funding healthier eating initiatives but through a litany of entirely non-soda-related things, such as expanding prekindergarten programs, renovating rec centers and libraries, and improving city parks.

In April, a New York Times reporter asked Kenney about the health benefits of his proposed tax. Even then, he wouldn’t take the bait. Instead of talking about skyrocketing obesity rates or type 2 diabetes, he responded, “There’s really serious health benefits in pre-K.”

It’s a tack the mayor’s office appears to be keen to stick with, even as it looks increasingly like the tax will pass, despite an estimated $4 million campaign funded by the beverage industry to defeat it. That campaign included—no surprise—the willful branding of it as a “grocery” tax.

Lauren Hitt, a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office, told ABC News that the tax “will fund the largest investment in education and neighborhood programs in decades.” According to Hitt, over five years, the tax will provide “over $400 million to pre-K, community schools, and improvements to parks, rec centers, and libraries.”

Other advocates for commonsense soda taxes in other cities would do well to take note of Philly’s apparent success.