Philadelphia Just Became First Major U.S. City To Approve A Soda Tax

That Diet Coke is gonna cost you

Image via CC (credit: Mike Mozart)

With a single vote, Philadelphia just told us everything we need to know about tax policy in America. After years of big pushes and equally big failures—including two tries in Philly—soda tax advocates finally notched a win in the City of Brotherly Love, where Mayor Jim Kenney succeeded in slapping a one-and-a-half-cent-per-once levy on every artificially sweetened or sugary drink sold in city limits.

How’d he do it? Simple: promise that sweet tax cash would go toward city councilmembers’ prize projects. In the recent past, critics of sweet drinks—which have borne the brunt of blame for Americans’ daunting obesity problems—tried a more idealistic approach. “He didn’t talk about the tax as a nanny-state measure designed to discourage sugar-saturated soft drinks,” the New York Times reported. “And he didn’t promise to earmark the proceeds for health programs. Instead, he cast the soft drink industry as a tantalizing revenue source that could be tapped to fund popular city programs, including universal prekindergarten.”

Given today’s litigation-happy political climate, Kenney’s victory is hardly all bottled up. Powerful enemies, including some strange bedfellows, fought the tax all the way to the end zone, and some of them are prepared to take it off the field, out of the stadium, and all the way to the courts. American Beverage Association, long time soda tax foes that they are, spent big to beat back Kenney’s challenge, much less afraid to sue than to lose fans of artificially sweetened drinks to artificially inflated prices.

But interest groups traditionally aligned with the progressive agenda that spawned the soda tax movement also strained to keep the drinks more affordable. Non-chain grocery stores and Teamsters both saw Philly’s tax as bad news. Bernie Sanders himself penned an op-ed for Philadelphia Magazine calling the move “a regressive grocery tax that would disproportionately affect low-income and middle-class Americans.”

And there’s the rub: much as marijuana legalization really caught on when officials realized they could spend pot tax revenue on whatever voters and local officeholders want most, Philly shows that soda taxes could catch on because Americans so often care more about achieving the priorities that make them feel good than balancing who winds up bearing the burden. Can that weird appeal to feel-good self-interest deliver a healthier nation? In another classic American twist, that may be up to the courts.

Image via CC (credit: Larry Miller)

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