My name is Alyssa, and I have a problem. My beverage of choice is always Diet Coke. One friend estimated that, when not sleeping or at the gym, the probability that I have a Diet Coke in either my hand or bag is around 80 percent. (It’s probably closer to 30 to 40 percent, but there’s no denying it’s my trademark beverage.) But despite my admitted over-consumption of soda, I’m still — very tentatively — in favor of Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter’s plans to levy a tax on sugary beverages.
In case you missed it in the pre-break midterm haze, as part of the proposed 2011 Philadelphia city budget, Nutter included a two-cent-per-ounce tax on beverages that use a caloric sweetener — including soda, sweetened iced tea, energy drinks and flavored water. For a two-liter bottle, it could raise the price by almost 100 percent. Nutter says he’s using the tax to highlight Philadelphia’s obesity problem; by shaming soda drinkers, his rationale goes, the number of guzzlers will go down and, therefore, so will the rate of obesity. Either way, it will help close the city’s massive budget gap.
The tax is far from perfect — and doesn’t work the way sin taxes, like those on cigarettes, normally do — which is why I’m not crazy about it. As editorials in The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Philadelphia Daily News have pointed out, the sensible place for the tax to be charged is, of course, at the sales counter if you wanted to deter people from buying the drinks for health reasons. But a sales tax hike requires approval from the state legislature, so instead Nutter is taxing the retailers before the soda is sold to the consumer, essentially nullifying any shaming power that the tax holds. Instead of passing the tax onto the consumer by taxing the specific beverage, as the mayor’s office is encouraging, the easiest thing for a smaller retailer to do is simply apply the tax across the board, raising the price on everything the retailer sells just a little bit.
But in response to this debacle, the Soda Lobby (I never thought I’d use that phrase) has tried to change the focus from public health to the economy. It has lined up, a la Big Tobacco in Thank You For Smoking, warning us all about the Bad Things that will follow: lost jobs, shuttered factories, crying starving children.
Give me a break. The fact is that we do have a fat problem in Philadelphia. According to a 2008 survey recently referenced in a City Council Hearing, the average rate of obesity in children across the city is 57 percent, and that number reaches 70 percent in some neighborhoods. About 64 percent of adults are obese, too. Focusing on the short-term economic twists, or even quibbling about how this tax is going to work, misses the point.
Nutter isn’t the only one to notice this in recent weeks. First Lady Michelle Obama visited Philly and even visited a Fresh Grocer (apparently, they’re not plagued with rumors about health code violations in other parts of the city) as part of her nationwide effort to combat childhood obesity.
The mayor’s current plan isn’t perfect — ideally, I’d be really in favor of a sales tax at the point of purchase, as well as a sales tax on other sugary, fatty foods, and serious investment in getting more grocery stores and health education in poor neighborhoods — but it’s a start. The proposal has gotten the conversation on obesity and sin taxes going again. And, honestly, a small tax hike applied across the board in Philadelphia isn’t the worst budget move we’ve seen in the past few years. Remember when we almost closed the libraries, or when the doomsday Plan C almost took effect last fall after last year’s budget fiasco? If this is what we’ve got to do, I’ll take it.
Alyssa Schwenk is a College senior from Ottumwa, Iowa. She is the former Editorial Page Editor of the DP and editor of The Report Card. Her e-mail address is email@example.com. That’s What Schwenk Said appears on Mondays.Comments powered by Disqus
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