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Philadelphia Win Puts Sugary Drinks in Crosshairs Nationwide




Philadelphia on Thursday became the largest, and only the second, U.S. city to tax soda and other sugary drinks despite a multimillion-dollar effort by the beverage industry to defeat it. The victory is one that supporters of the tax expect will provide a model for San Francisco, Boulder, Colo., and other cities pushing for similar measures.

For years, cities such as Seattle, San Francisco and Chicago have tried and failed to do the same, faced with intense opposition from the soda industry. Even in Philadelphia, two previous attempts to pass a sugary drinks tax failed.

But this time, instead of focusing on the health aspect, the city’s new mayor, Jim Kenney, proposed the tax as a way to fund community and education initiatives. The new Philadelphia tax of 1.5 cents per ounce will be used to fund programs such as citywide pre-K education. The tax, passed by the City Council with a 13-4 vote, will take effect Jan. 1, 2017.

“Philadelphia made a historic investment in our neighborhoods and in our education system today,” Kenney said in a statement. “I … thank my colleagues in Council for working with our administration to craft a shared agenda that will improve the education, health and prosperity of children and families all across our city for years to come.”

Obesity expert Kelly Brownell, Ph.D., dean of Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, said taxing unhealthy foods could not only decrease consumption and generate tax revenue, but could also lower healthcare costs in a region.

Sugary drinks provide almost no nutritional value, he said, yet they are the single greatest source of added sugar in Americans’ diets.

Soda and other sugary beverages are heavily marketed to children, creating unhealthy habits early in life, Brownell said.

When big cities pass taxes such as the one in Philadelphia, it can set a precedent for other cities to follow, Brownell said. For example, tobacco taxes that were once largely opposed became commonplace.

In exchange for putting soda tax discussions on a one-year hiatus, the American Beverage Association had offered to give the city $10 million for its pre-K expansion, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported last week.

Shortly after the vote, the ABA said in a statement that it will take legal action to stop the tax.

“The fact remains that these taxes are discriminatory and highly unpopular — not only with Philadelphians, but with all Americans,” the ABA said.

Berkeley, California, is the only other U.S. city to pass a sugary drinks tax. Since the 1-cent-per-ounce tax went into effect in March 2015, it has so far generated $1.5 million in revenue, most of which is used to fund nutrition and health programs.

Councilman Laurie Capitelli led the effort and said the key was educating the residents of Berkeley.

“Once I learned how bad these drinks are for us, I focused on educating folks to reduce consumption,” he said. “And people responded to that.”

Soda companies spent millions in ad campaigns to defeat the measure, Capitelli said.

“Big Soda tried to sway the community’s opinion, and it backfired,” he said. “It’s great to see that the people won.”

In January, the World Health Organization suggested using taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages to help fight childhood obesity. Then in March, the U.K. government announced a sugary drinks tax that will take effect in April 2018.

France has already implemented such a tax, as has Mexico, where sales of sugar-sweetened beverages dropped by 6 percent one year after the 1-peso-per-liter tax took effect in 2014, according to a 2016 study published The BMJ.

The wins in Berkeley and Philadelphia make it possible for other cities to consider similar taxes, Capitelli said. In addition to San Francisco, at least two other California cities — Oakland and Albany — are considering a tax.

“I think those cities are going to snowball the initiative in California,” Capitelli said. “More people are looking into the possibility of a sugary beverage tax because the message is out there.”

According to the American Heart Association, men should have no more than 9 teaspoons of added sugar each day and women should have no more than about 6 teaspoons a day. A 12-ounce can of soda contains about 8 teaspoons of added sugar.

“Today, Philadelphia is blazing a trail for other cities and states to follow to prioritize heart-healthy habits over beverage industry profits,” AHA CEO Nancy Brown said in a statement. “As governors and mayors struggle with budgets and the high costs of chronic diseases, we urge them to consider taxes on sugary drinks as an effective strategy to fund much-needed health programs throughout their communities.”