Philly’s soda tax

Philly teens drank less soda after the beverage tax took effect, new study finds

The research from CHOP and UPenn showed a significant drop compared to other cities.

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Dan Levy / Billy Penn
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On Wednesdays we wear pink — and don’t drink soda? Teen soda consumption in Philadelphia dropped by 15% after the city’s controversial tax on sugary drinks went into effect in January 2017, according to a new study.

Published this week in JAMA Pediatrics, the study looked at the amount of soda servings per week for high school students in Philadelphia, compared to seven other cities that do not have a sugar-sweetened beverage tax.

Before the 1.5-cent-per-ounce tax was implemented in January 2017, Philly highschoolers drank an average of 5.4 servings of soda per week, compared to an average of 4 servings per week for students in the other cities surveyed. Two years later, the average servings per week for Philadelphia teenagers dropped 0.81, nearly one whole serving.

Some subgroups saw even bigger declines from 2017 to 2019. For Hispanic teen students in Philadelphia, weekly soda servings decreased by 1.1; for students with obesity, they went down by 1.2, per the analysis.

To draw these conclusions, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine and the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania used data from the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, a database of national survey results conducted by the Center for Disease Control to monitor and track health behaviors in children and young adults that lead to death, disability, and social problems. More than 85,000 highschoolers were included in the analysis.

The JAMA study doesn’t say whether or not soda consumption decreased in the control group of cities, but notes that researchers used “difference-in-differences regression modeling” to compare the Philly outcomes with the other cities’ results, and concluded there was a statistically significant reduction in post-soda tax Philadelphia.

The evidence of decline in soda consumption among teens due to the city’s soda tax falls in line with a May 2019 study, also published in JAMA, which found sales of soda and sugar-sweetened beverages in Philadelphia fell 51% during the first year the law was in effect, and by 38% if taking into account an increase in sales in areas immediately outside the city.

Unlike some earlier, failed efforts in other municipalities, Philadelphia’s soda tax was not pitched as a measure to improve health by decreasing soda drinking.

Mayor Jim Kenney proposed the beverage tax soon after taking office in 2016, and has championed the levy as a valuable funding source for the city’s free pre-K programs, community schools, and the Rebuild initiative to renovate and repair rec centers, playgrounds, and more.

From 2017 to 2020, the tax brought in about $200 million for the city, although the slow rate at which those funds have been put to use for Rebuild programming has frustrated critics and some elected officials.

The tax’s detractors have pointed to the fact that it is a regressive tax, which has more of an impact on low-income communities who are less able to go outside of the city limits to avoid paying the extra 1.5-cent-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. Others point to the fact that it has hit corner stores and small business owners the hardest, with drink purchases often consisting of up to 50 percent of their total sales.

Across the country, few cities have followed Philly’s lead as the first big city to pass a soda tax in 2016. The American Beverage Association, which spent more than $19 million fighting Philadelphia’s soda tax from 2016 through Sept. 2019, has worked to pass preemptive legislation that effectively bans any similar taxes from being passed in other parts of the country. Since 2017, four states — Arizona, California, Michigan, and Washington — have passed laws preempting local SSB taxes.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld Philly’s beverage tax in 2018, ruling that it was not in conflict with the Sterling Act, which says that Philadelphia has taxation power except in cases where it is preempted by state law, or it is a tax which duplicates a tax already levied at the state level.

That same year, legislation was introduced in Harrisburg that would override the city’s current law by preempting local taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages at the state level, but it failed to pass.

Want some more? Explore other Philly’s soda tax stories.

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