Philadelphia Soda Tax Strategy : Stress Needs, Not Health

PHILADELPHIA —In the city of cheese steaks and soft pretzels, a soda tax that regulates people’s behavior is a hard sell.
But Philadelphia is on the verge of becoming only the second city in the country to pass a tax on soft drinks, thanks to the mayor’s creative approach to push the plan as a way to address some of its other ills, including paying for pre-kindergarten opportunities, rebuilding crumbling recreation centers and creating community schools.

The 1.5 cent per ounce tax on regular and diet sodas is expected to raise $91 million. City council is set to approve the measure at its Thursday meeting.

It’s an approach that could be the key to victory for an idea that has failed twice in Philadelphia and dozens of times in places across the country in recent years – and a new strategy cities have been watching as Philadelphia is poised for a rare victory on an issue that has been unpopular.

“Cities learn from each other,” said Vanessa Williamson, a fellow at the Brookings Institute who studies American attitudes about taxation. “I would be very surprised if other cities weren’t going to think about whether the example set by Philadelphia can apply to their cities as well.”

Indeed, the City of Brotherly Love looked to Berkeley, California —the first city in the country to pass a soda tax last fall — for how they might pull off its own. But Berkeley, a town of less than 120,000, has nearly twice the median household income of Philadelphia and is overwhelmingly white.

In Philadelphia, often cited as the poorest big city in the country, more than 180,000 citizens – many of them children – live in deep poverty and only 45 percent of its 1.5 million residents are white.

“Berkeley’s not Philadelphia,” said City Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds-Brown, who voted in support of the soda tax in 2010 and 2011.

Sheis also supporting the latest version, which includes a tax on diet soda.

“I’m satisfied because the homework says diet soda is more often consumed by non-African-Americans,” said Reynolds-Brown, who is black. “That’s casting the net far wider and more citizens have some skin in the game.”

The case could certainly be made for a healthier Philadelphia — more than 68 percent of adults and 41 percent of children in the city are overweight or obese. But Kenney, a council veteran who ran pledging to establish universal pre-K and took office citing poverty as his top priority, focused on the public interest over public health in making the argument to tax sugary drinks.

“It’s easier to have children get pre-K,” Kenney said, calling whatever health benefits are realized from the tax a bonus. “Americans generally reject other people telling them what’s healthy for them, so we tried to stay away from that. Our intention was to reduce the level of poverty for our city, and we can do that through education.”

And the novel strategy of taking a tax that has traditionally been criticized as preying on poor communities and pledging to use the money to help those same neighborhoods was an argument that helped neutralize some of the racial backlash.
As the debate has swirled around the issue this spring, the optics were stark: On one end were union members honking through town in trucks bearing soda company logos. On the other, toddlers staged read-ins at City Hall in an emotional appeal.

“It made it more difficult because we were viewed as being adverse to children,” said Larry Ceisler, a spokesman for No Philly Grocery Tax, which includes the soda industry. “The mayor basically put a false choice before city council: If you’re for pre-K, you have to be for the soda tax. It was three months of children being paraded out in rallies with crayons.”

Both sides spent millions of dollars lobbying for the issue, with money pouring in from outside of Philadelphia. And the issue also hit the 2016 election when Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both weighed in ahead of the Pennsylvania primary.

The soda tax needs nine of the council’s 17 votes to become law.

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