Two tries, two fails. Mayor Nutter was never able to enact a tax on sugary drinks, a fee he claimed was needed to curb childhood obesity in Philadelphia and to provide necessary funding during the city’s economic slump. The first time around, in spring of 2010, a frothy mix of consumer outrage, corporate lobbyists, anti-tax advocates and soda-factory workers shut the mayor down. The city instead imposed a 9.9 percent tax hike.
During the second try this past summer, the Nutter Administration made a half-assed attempt to frame the debate as a way to help fund city schools. The Philadelphia School District was facing a $629 million budget gap, and Nutter claimed either a 2-cent per-ounce soda tax, or another 10 percent property tax hike, was needed. In the end, due to more lobbying—especially by Pennsauken-based Canada Dry Bottling Co., which donated the previous year to the campaigns of councilmembers Bill Greenlee, Bill Green, Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, Darrell Clarke, Jannie Blackwell, and to Nutter—Council enacted a temporary 3.85 percent property-tax increase, providing the school district with $53 million in aid.
But the new cash didn’t stop school closings and layoffs. Also, Nutter never really admitted defeat: “The sugar-sweetened beverage did not actually come up for a vote, so technically, it was not defeated,” he said less than a week after enacting the city’s second property tax hike in two years. Plus, he had the next best thing: A federally funded health program providing a ton of the legwork in the fight against sugary drinks and, by extension, childhood obesity.
Now that that program, launched in 2010, is in full effect, beverage advocates seem to be running scared, putting together their own harsh ad campaign that’s either late to the federal health-reform party or early to the fight that Nutter and other local leaders may have in store later this year. And with the city budget still hurting, some believe the Nutter Administration may give the soda tax another stab.
If that happens, the American Beverage Association will be ready. It has more cash and clout—spending almost $19 million on lobbying in 2009 alone, according to the independent nonprofit OpenSecrets.org—than the smaller, local associations that took on Nutter’s soda tax the last two times. Now, the ABA has a digital ad campaign called Smart Taxpayers Exposing Waste (STEW), whose Philly focus is on the anti-sugary drink ads that have popped up around the city outside 100 to 150 corner stores in low-income, high-obesity areas; on SEPTA buses; and on the radio.
The city’s campaign, which targets childhood obesity with an anti-sugary drink message, was created through funding from the $787 billion stimulus package.
“[The media campaign] is specifically targeting caregivers of young children,” says Giridhar Mallya, director of Policy and Planning for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. “It’s trying to increase [their] awareness about the health effects of sugary drinks, particularly how over-consumption can lead to weight gain and diabetes.”
And here’s how Philly’s paying for it: Of the aforementioned $787 billion federal bill, $650 million was earmarked for a program called Communities Putting Prevention to Work. It propped up citywide health initiatives throughout the country, and was put together through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The program doled out about $244 million to cities and states for anti-obesity and anti-tobacco funds. And Philly was on one of the highest receiving ends of any U.S. metropolis—qualifying on both the obesity and smoking fronts—receiving $25.4 million to create Get Healthy Philly. Of that, the city spent $2.4 million on its anti-soda advertising blitz.
According to Mallya, results on the ad campaign and projects—farmers markets in low-income areas, new bike paths and other initiatives—are still coming in.
STEW isn’t exactly holding its breath. A Facebook graphic notes the $2.4 million spent on anti-soda ads could have created the following jobs: 52 police officers, 54 firefighters, 57 paramedics, 58 teachers or 88 EMTs. (For one year.)
“Except that [the money from the federal government] wasn’t designed for that,” says Mark McDonald, Nutter’s press secretary. “Other than factually being an error, they’re welcome to their comment.”
Regardless, ABA Communications Director Chris Gindlesperger says the city should have spent the cash repairing bike paths, keeping pools open, establishing rec centers and “those types of things. And they would probably accomplish the goal of improving health and put people back to work and create jobs at the same time. It’s a tough economy and cities like Philadelphia are spending money on ad campaigns and it’s not creating jobs.”
For their part, the city isn’t saying whether it’ll bring back the soda tax. “Nothing is out of the possible, but there are no specific plans at this time [to introduce a soda tax],” says McDonald.
But if they do, the ABA is ready. “We’ll continue to oppose, in Philadelphia and elsewhere else, discriminatory taxes on our products,” says Gindlesperger. “I think the soda tax, Mayor Nutter’s proposal failed for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is people just don’t want it. Philadelphians can’t, and we all can’t afford to pay a penny more for our groceries and there’s a line that people just wont accept. Which is they can make the choice that’s right for them without government help.”
"I like to buy things that are two-for-one,” says Councilman Brian O’Neill. “Well, this is the reverse of that! This is the one-for-two tax. You pay for two, and you get one.”
So the tax would affect the poor, but not for very long. Once that “70 percent tax” brings each purchase into focus—Is this jug of syrupwater really necessary?—soda, one hopes, would return to its traditional role: an every-so-often treat.
Nutter's controversial soda and trash tax proposals are getting wiped out by the perfect storm of protests and City Council.
When you consider all the arguments for and against the soda tax, it seems like the people trying to kill it are the best case against their own cause.