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When opponents voice their displeasure with Mayor Jim Kenney’s proposed soda tax, they tend to call it regressive. Politicians ranging from Judge Nelson Diaz to Councilwoman Maria Quiñones–Sánchez to even Bernie Sanders have argued the 3-cent-per-ounce tax will disproportionately affect Philly’s lower-income and minority residents. When they do, soda tax supporters have often answered back with what they say is an even bigger regressive problem: diabetes.

A Harvard researcher, whose study predicted the soda tax could prevent 2,280 annual cases of diabetes, said (lower-income people) “are are spending of a lot of their money on sugar-sweetened beverages that are, frankly, killing them.”

Berkeley, Calif., councilman Laurie Capitelli said “I can’t tell you how many times I said ‘you know what’s really regressive? Diabetes is really regressive.’”

And they’re right. Philadelphia has an adult diabetes problem that has grown more severe in recent years and is significantly worse than in America’s other largest cities. The people affected by the disease are disproportionately poor and minority. They’re also more likely to drink soda and sugar-sweetened juices and teas.

Who gets diabetes in Philly

Philadelphia’s Department of Public Health released its annual Community Health Assessment a few months ago. It found 15.4 percent of Philadelphians have or ever had adult diabetes.

For black residents, the prevalence was much higher, with 18.8 percent of Philly’s black population suffering from the disease. For Hispanics, it was 14 percent. White and Asian residents checked in below the city average at 13.6 percent and 7.5 percent, respectively.

Diabetes by ethnicity
Credit: Department of Public Health

The Department of Public Health breaks up the city into several planning districts. The ones with the highest rates of diabetes are in North Philly, Southwest Philly and West Philly.

A while back, Billy Penn did an article on income inequality in Philadelphia’s most segregated neighborhoods. These areas with the highest rates of diabetes — featuring neighborhoods like Strawberry Mansion, Mantua and Mill Creek — happen to be some of the poorest and some of the city’s most segregated, with 95 percent-plus black populations and median annual household incomes in many cases ranging from $15,000 to $25,000.

Diabetes map
Credit: Department of Public Health

No. 1 for the wrong reason

Philadelphia gets on a lot of lists for good and bad reasons. Add diabetes as one of the bad reasons.

The counties featuring America’s nine other largest cities all have diabetes rates below the U.S. average of 12.3 percent. Philly’s, of course, is at 15.4 percent.

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Though Philadelphia’s percentage of residents with diabetes dipped from 16 percent to 15.4 percent from 2012 to 2014-15, that share is still well above the 10.9 percent in 2004, meaning about 60,000 more residents have or ever had the disease now than 10 years ago.

The connection to soda

The Department of Public Health released data in 2012 on several chronic diseases and risk factors. In many neighborhoods where people were more likely to drink at least one soda or sugar-sweetened beverage daily, they were also more likely to suffer from diabetes (at the time, the city rate was 12.3 percent). Only a couple of areas had rates of diabetes lower than the city average and an above-average number of soda or sugar-sweetened beverage drinkers.

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Many of these areas with higher diabetes rates also had populations less likely to exercise or more likely to eat fast food. But much of the time, soda and sugar-sweetened beverage consumption correlated with a higher prevalence of diabetes.

Mark Dent is a reporter/curator at BillyPenn. He previously worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he covered the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State football and the Penn State administration. His...