Soda Tax — The Philadelphia Story


In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, former mayor Mike Nutter used to keep a bottle of soda on his desk, and another container with 17 teaspoons of sugar in it, to illustrate the point that swallowing the one implied ingesting the other. He even took the props to public meetings, and once asked a journalist, “Who in their right mind would ever put this much sugar into something you’re going to drink?”

Insane or not, across America, many voters are against the whole “sin tax” concept. They resist taxes with a “moral subtext” imposed by the “nanny state.” Even politicians who are pretty much on the same side may disagree. During last year’s presidential campaign, both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders made headlines by weighing in on the city’s soda tax controversy.

One man reconsiders

Back when Mayor Nutter wanted a 2-cents-per-ounce soda tax, Jim Kenney was one of the city council members who opposed it. But after becoming mayor himself, Kenney switched sides, acquiring a new, supportive, and exclusively revenue-based attitude.

Mayor Kenney did not tell voters that drinking less sugar would be good for them and their children, but pointed out that $400 million in the next five years would be a sweet little nest egg to finance preschools, and to renovate public spaces, including parks and recreation centers, which at least have some connection with obesity prevention. Still, the mayor’s endorsement was unabashedly “based on the idea that a soda tax is just an untapped source of revenue,” as journalist Zeeshan Aleem put it.

How much difference does it make? A public official’s genuine attitude is a difficult variable to influence or control. Nothing can make them care about children’s health. But all public officials are supposed to care about spending tax revenues sensibly, and about bringing in more money. If they favor the soda tax for that reason, how much should their motivation matter, as long as the thing gets done?

A false equivalency

People wondered why passing a soda tax was so difficult. After all, Berkeley, California, had managed to do it. But Berkeley is a smallish city on the West Coast, while Philadelphia is big, tough, and sits on a lot of history.

Their situations are not the same, as Jacob Sullum explains: What initially appeared to be an altruistic effort to “save poor people from their own bad habits” was in Philadelphia admittedly only a money grab. He writes:

Unlike Berkeley, where voters approved a one-cent-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened drinks in 2014, Philadelphia will tax low-calorie and zero-calorie beverages at the same rate as regular soda. In fact, the tax of one-and-a-half cents per ounce could perversely encourage consumption of more calories, especially since it does not apply to juice products loaded with naturally occurring sugar.

How did this happen?

(To be continued…)

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “The Philadelphia soda tax experiment,”, 08/04/16
Source: “Philadelphia’s Mayor Proposes the Highest Soda Tax in the U.S., But Not to Improve Health,”, 04/15/16
Source: “Philadelphia’s New Soda Tax Has Nothing to Do With Obesity,”, 06/17/16
Photo credit: Shardayyy via Visualhunt/CC BY

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