Soda tax bubbles up again

by pkerkstra on July 28, 2012

Persistence is a too-rare quality in political leaders. Even more than the rest of us, politicians hate to lose. Once burned, elected officials more often than not stop risking political capital on the losing cause.

So it’s more refreshing than an ice-cold soda to see that Mayor Nutter, though beaten in 2010 and again in 2011, still has not given up his goal of passing a tax on sugary drinks.

“It was a good idea when we proposed it; it’s still a good idea today,” Nutter told the Philadelphia Daily News this week.

I’d figured the tax for a slam dunk when it was introduced a little over two years ago. City Council isn’t exactly allergic to taxes, and here was one that seemed likely to offend fewer people than would another round of property tax hikes.

Instead, the soda industry put together a remarkably potent political coalition and squashed the initiative two years running.

The campaign, run by veteran public-relations manager Larry Ceisler, is well-funded. Why, the beverage industry spent $239,000 in the first quarter of this year alone, and Nutter didn’t push a sugary drinks tax this year.

But even more important than the money is the makeup of the antitax lobby; big-money business interests, of course, but also union workers, leading philanthropists who just happen to be soda moguls, and sympathetic mom-and-pop corner-store owners.

That’s a group that hits a lot of different political pressure points, and there are no signs the coalition is fraying or going away. Which is why it’s a bit surprising that Nutter seems eager to go another round. But Ceisler says he expected it all along.

“You can’t go around being a national spokesperson on an issue and not try it in your own city,” Ceisler said, referring to Nutter’s myriad appearances on cable networks and radio programs to talk about obesity.

Given all those appearances, there’s a temptation to dismiss Nutter’s abiding interest in a soda tax as self-interest, a way for the mayor to further enhance his growing national profile.

And maybe it is, to a point. But obesity is also a huge and growing problem for large sections of Philadelphia, sections that are mostly poor and mostly black. A tax on soda might be an issue that plays well with national media elites, but it will have its biggest impact in places like North and Southwest Philadelphia, where childhood obesity is off the charts.

So it’s in the city’s interest for Nutter to stick with this one. And if he does, I think he’ll get his soda tax eventually.

There’s a well-established pattern with public health initiatives that target unhealthy products and behaviors that Americans enjoy.

First they’re decried as nannyism, instances of the state interfering unjustly in the lives of its citizens.

Then, as the scientific evidence mounts, there’s grudging public acceptance that, yes, perhaps it is OK to levy large taxes on cigarettes and alcohol, to ban smoking in public places, to forbid texting while driving.

Eventually, in a lot of cases, the once socially commonplace vice becomes culturally unacceptable. Drunken driving. Smoking while pregnant.

Is it crazy to think, with time and a steady drumbeat of science documenting the dietary evils of sugar, that buying your kid a 40-ounce Super Big Gulp will be considered as almost as reckless?

Now, a lot of people consider it ludicrous to lump something as quintessentially American as Coke or Pepsi in with booze or smokes. But as anyone who’s watched Mad Men knows, it was quintessentially American to consume two packs of cigarettes and a fifth of rye by 5 p.m. not all that long ago.

Granted, soda is not intoxicating, and consuming Mountain Dew in the vicinity of others doesn’t put them at risk for emphysema. But Nutter isn’t talking about a legal age for drinking soda, he’s not proposing a ban on open containers of Dr Pepper. Philadelphians would still be free to drink as much as they want, where they want, so long as they pay the tax. If that means less sugared soda is consumed, well, that’s the point.

The critics argue that government ought not try to shape consumer behavior through the tax code. The argument makes for a nice articulation of libertarian ideals, but the fact is that the federal, state, and local tax codes are positively rife with clauses designed to goad citizens into behaving as the government would like.

You can deduct the interest payments on your mortgage because the government wants to encourage home-ownership. There are tax credits for energy-efficient appliances so that people will waste less electricity and natural gas. And the Supreme Court just ruled that Americans can be taxed for failing to buy health insurance.

On top of that, there are the taxpayer-funded subsidies to all kinds of favored industries, including corn farmers who make the high-fructose corn syrup that so cheaply sweetens soda.

The best policy of all probably would be to kill those subsidies and let the market set a natural and likely higher price for soda. That just might reduce consumption enough to make a tax redundant.

But while federal agriculture policy is not in Nutter’s job description, the city’s health – including its fiscal health – certainly is.

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