Philadelphia's mayor proposes the highest soda tax in the US, but not to improve health

Sugar Soda Tax - A Good Idea or Not
Sugar Soda Tax - A Good Idea or Not

Five years ago, then-Philadelphia city council member Jim Kenney opposed the idea of imposing a soda tax to fight childhood obesity in his city. But now, as mayor, he's angling to institute the highest soda tax in the nation.

What prompted the reversal? He's doing it for the money, not to improve public health.

Kenney's new city budget taxes soda at $0.03 an ounce, according to a report by theNew York Times. The policy would make a 20-ounce bottle of soda $0.60 more expensive, effectively doubling the cost of some drinks. He estimates that the more-than-$400 million that could be raised via the tax in the next half decade would fund universal preschool and allow the city to renovate a variety of its most vital public venues.

As far as soda tax proposals go, it seems like a long shot. Time and time again, significantly smaller ones have been shot down across the country. The only city to have successfully passed one in the United States thus far is Berkeley, California.

Philadelphia's Mayor Proposes the Highest Soda Tax in the U.S., But Not to Improve Health
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In his original opposition to a soda tax, Kenney cited one of the chief reasons that soda taxes struggle to gain traction — Americans don't respond well to the idea of paternalism in the tax code. High taxes with moral subtexts are already common for alcohol and cigarettes, but it remains difficult to get entire communities on board with the idea of a tax designed to discourage people from purchasing sugary drinks.

But Kenney's campaign for the new soda tax isn't a health crusade. It's based on the idea that a soda tax is just an untapped source of revenue that justifies the end of funding a much-needed education program. In his public arguments for the tax, he's "not using the word obesity, or suggesting that people should drink less soda," reports the Times.

Regardless of how he's presenting the soda tax, if it passes, there is a good chance it could reshape consumption trends and health. Mexico's experiment with a very hefty tax on all sugar-sweetened beverages since 2014 has contributed to a 12% drop in the their purchase and a modest rise in the sales of bottled water.

Should Kenney manage to get his soda tax passed, the moral of the story might be that it's best to avoid telling citizens what's good for them and instead package it as a way to deliver what's best for the community.

Related: Learn about San Francisco's soda warning labels: