Philadelphia soda tax breaks new ground

It’s not “just Berkeley” anymore. With a City Council vote yesterday, Philadelphia is poised to become the first big city to adopt a tax on sweetened drinks, paving the way for communities across the country to build on the powerful combination of well-targeted investment and people-first policy.

Meeting Wednesday as a “committee of the whole” to consider the city budget, the council endorsed sending the tax measure forward for formal adoption next week. The 1.5-cent per ounce excise tax will provide much-needed revenue for universal pre-kindergarten, rebuilding parks and recreation centers and addressing city budget issues. The tax rate is a half-cent more per ounce than Berkeley’s. 

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Jim Krieger, executive director of Healthy Food America, issued this statement in response to the council action:

“Council members stood up to more than $4 million worth of beverage industry pressure to do the right thing for the long-term health and life chances of Philadelphia kids.

In so doing, Philadelphia is showing communities across the country that taxes on sugary drinks are a politically acceptable way to recoup industry profits for important community priorities, to alert citizens about the harms from excessive sugar and to start turning the tide toward health. “

Philadelphia is breaking ground in other ways, as well. After a day of negotiations on Wednesday, the council decided to cut the mayor’s proposed 3 cents per ounce in half, and to apply the tax to artificially sweetened beverages as well as sugary drinks. How that will affect the health and fiscal impact of the tax is a big unknown: Watch this space in the coming days for our analysis of what it might mean.

Regardless, Philadelphia will be a fascinating bellwether. The fifth largest city in America, Philadelphia is also one of the poorest, and its poorest residents drink more soda and suffer disproportionately from diabetes and complications from obesity. Although Mayor Jim Kenney positioned the tax primarily as a revenue generator for pre-K and other community priorities, the ensuing debate turned a spotlight onto those health issues and what to do about them.

The mayor’s proposal to recapture money from a beverage industry that has preyed on poorer communities and use it to reinvest in those communities helped build a coalition unprecedented in its breadth: faith-based organizations, community groups, unions, small businesses, educators, doctors, preschool providers, parks and recreation leaders, neighborhood associations, and parents from all over the city.

Countless places around the country are looking for ways to fund efforts to lift kids out of poverty, improve quality of life and address the unequal burden of health impacts felt in less advantaged communities. Similar coalitions to Philadelphia’s are waiting to be born, with benefits that can go well beyond passing a sugary drinks tax. All it takes is the will to stand up to a beverage industry that is borrowing heavily from the Big Tobacco playbook, and a little bit of vision.

 


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