Mayor Jim Kenney with Councilman Bobby Henon, left, and Council President Darrell Clarke.

Mayor Jim Kenney with Councilman Bobby Henon, left, and Council President Darrell Clarke.

PHL Council Flickr

Philly’s soda tax passed: Other cities (maybe a national tax) are next

This was never just about Philly. Now, cities across America have our city to look at for soda tax inspiration.

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg says it’s not a matter of if other cities will follow Philadelphia’s soda tax lead — it’s a matter of when and how quickly.

Philadelphia City Council yesterday approved a 1.5-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks and diet beverages, becoming the first major American to do so. And in recent weeks officials in other cash-strapped cities across the country have pored over stories in national media about the tax. They’re looking at Philly to see how this special type of sin tax might work in their own cities.

Here in Philly, it’s easy to get caught up in the nitty gritty. How much extra money will this cost me when I go to the store? Where is this money going? Who voted for it? Are we really going to fund universal pre-K for kids across the city? But nationally, it’s a different story — the tale of a first-year mayor who beat special interests and convinced legislators to pass a tax on sugary drinks in a feat some 40 other U.S. officials couldn’t do.

There are several takeaways from the national media and how it broadly covered Philadelphia’s implementation of the soda tax. Here’s what the consensus was:

1. Other cities are already planning to implement this

The New York Times’ headline about what went down yesterday in Council says it all: “Soda Tax Passes in Philadelphia. Advocates Ask: Who’s Next?”

Legislators in three California cities — San Francisco, Oakland and Albany — have already approved soda taxes and they’ll be on the ballot in November. Voters in Boulder, Colo. could also see a soda tax on their ballots as early as this fall, too.

The only other city to implement a soda tax so far was Berkeley, Calif., a small, liberal city that levied a 1-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary beverages in 2014. City officials there say they’ve taken calls from all over the country about best practices for going about implementing a soda tax and advice on how to scale it up to larger cities. Kenney says he hasn’t spoken to other cities yet about Philly’s tax. But no doubt it’s coming.

In addition, a congresswoman from Connecticut used Philadelphia’s soda tax success yesterday in order to renew her calls for a *nationwide* tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, according to Reuters.

2. They’re looking to Kenney for how to sell a soda tax

Former Mayor Michael Nutter tried to implement a soda tax twice, failing both times. Kenney did it in his first six months in office. What gives? First off, he has a better relationship with City Council than Nutter did toward the end of his tenure. But Kenney also branded this tax as a way to bring in revenue to fund popular programs, not necessarily to cut down on obesity.

When Reuters covered the soda tax this week, its headline was: “Philadelphia passes soda tax after mayor rewrites playbook.” Kenney has said that though the health benefits of a soda tax are important, people don’t like being told what is and isn’t healthy. Instead, he focused on revenue for popular programs in order to galvanize constituents.

“Tie your efforts to tangible initiatives that people care about,” Kenney said in a press conference. “When it comes up, acknowledge that it is a good thing to drink less sugar-sweetened beverages, but tie it to things that people care about.”

Industry analysts agree — Kenney’s model for success could become a new, unexpected standard.

“Philly represents the clearest sign yet that revenue rather than health may become the new argument for sugary-beverage tax proposals,” Duane Stanford, editor-in-chief of Beverage Digest, told Bloomberg.

3. The big soda companies are terrified (and bringing out the lawyers)

The American Beverage Association, the Brotherhood of Teamsters and other groups that have vehemently stood against this tax have spent millions fighting against it, and not just because they don’t want a soda tax in Philadelphia. They’re fighting against it — and will continue to in court — because they don’t want a soda tax across the country.

Here’s how the Wall Street Journal framed it: 

It represents a blow to soft-drink companies Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo Inc. and Dr Pepper Snapple Group Inc. The beverage industry argues such taxes are discriminatory and has spent more than $100 million since 2009 to defeat similar initiatives in more than two dozen cities and states.

4. Though it wasn’t emphasized, health advocates are beaming

Health advocates are ecstatic. They funded ads in favor of the soda tax in Philadelphia and have already expressed their hope that it’ll quickly spread across the country.

“If we go five years ahead and look back, I think this is going to be a watershed moment,” Jim Krieger, executive director at Healthy Food America, told The New York Times. “This is going to really provide momentum.”

5. The domino effect will be strong

Bloomberg, who supported the tax, himself tried to implement measures to curb soda consumption in New York City when he was mayor by attempting to limit the size of large soft drinks. He was defeated in court by special interest groups like the American Beverage Association that was against Bloomberg’s moves then, and is against Kenney’s moves now.

But the former mayor who dumped cash into advertisements and outreach to get folks on Kenney’s side said in a statement that the success of the tax in Philadelphia will embolden other leaders to act. And fast.

“When cities lead the way, solutions that were once considered non-starters can quickly catch fire and spread around the world,” he said. “It would not be the first revolution Philadelphia has sparked.”

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