Soda Taxes

Philadelphia's New Soda Tax Has Nothing to Do With Obesity

The city council rejected regressive paternalism in favor of a simple money grab.


Coca-Cola Company, Amazon

Yesterday Philadelphia became the first major city in the United States to impose a special tax on soft drinks, but as enacted it has nothing to do with reducing obesity, the usual rationale for such levies. Unlike Berkeley, where voters approved a one-cent-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened drinks in 2014, Philadelphia will tax low-calorie and zero-calorie beverages at the same rate as regular soda. In fact, the tax of one-and-a-half cents per ounce could perversely encourage consumption of more calories, especially since it does not apply to juice products loaded with naturally occurring sugar.

Mayor Jim Kenney, who as a councilman vigorously opposed a two-cent-per-ounce soda tax proposed by his predecessor, Michael Nutter, because of the burden it would impose on poor people, changed his mind this year, pitching an even more burdensome three-cent-per-ounce tax. But instead of presenting the highly regressive levy as a "public health" measure aimed at discouraging poor people from drinking the beverages they prefer, which is how Nutter had framed it, Kenney said the city should use the tax to pay for "universal preschool." That strategy worked, except the city council noticed that Kenney planned to divert some of the money to the general fund, so it cut his proposed rate in half and broadened the base, applying the tax to artificially sweetened as well as sugar-sweetened drinks.

The upshot is that Diet Coke, with zero calories, will be taxed at the same rate as regular Coca-Cola, which has 12 calories per ounce, while orange juice, which has just as many calories per ounce, and grape juice, which has 21, will escape the tax altogether. Needless to say, this is not the way an obesity-fighting social engineer would have designed the tax, which is now simply a way for the city to raise money on the backs of poor and working-class residents. The money will be used to "help pad the City's General Fund" as well as "fund quality pre-K expansion, community schools, [and] reinvestment in parks and recreation centers." 

City Council President Darrell Clarke argues that the revised tax is less regressive than the one Kenney sought. "It is the view of many members of Council that a General Fund problem and citywide initiatives should not be resolved by a proposal that affects mostly low-income people with few options," he says, alluding to the fact that sugar-sweetened drinks are disproportionately popular among poor people. By taxing diet soda as well, the city council hopes to impose more of the burden on middle-class and wealthy residents. Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell says the enacted version of the tax will be "more widely spread among consumers at both ends of the income spectrum."

This increase in perceived fairness, of course, comes at the cost of obliterating the rationale for taxing these particular products. What was once a supposedly noble effort to save poor people from their own bad habits has become nothing more than a money grab. In a way, that's encouraging, because Philadelphians clearly rebelled at the notion that taxes should be used to manipulate people's dietary choices, especially when poor people of color are the main targets. The condescending paternalism of Nutter's tax proposal turned people off so much that he could not get it approved. Superficial similarities aside, it turns out that what passes for high-minded resistance to "Big Soda" in Berkeley looks a lot more like arrogant meddling in Philadelphia.

NEXT: Brickbat: No Good Deed

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. This soda tax is as much about ‘health’ as a carbon tax is about reducing about emissions.

  2. “Kenney said the city should use the tax to pay for “universal preschool.” ”

    Wait just a cotton-pickin’ minute here. Why do they need tax money for universal preschool? As with Bernie’s college plan, I was told it was free — you don’t need money for free stuff!

    1. They have to pay the licencing fee to the person who holds the patent on it.

    2. “””universal preschool”””

      taxpayer paid babysitting

      1. Don’t be silly.

        Babysitters are liable if anything happens to the child. these people won’t be.

    3. universal preschool daycare.


    4. Those crony pockets don’t line themselves, you know.

  3. The reason why they want this tax is the same reason they want any tax, they want the money.

    1. Should I borrow a shocked face?

  4. Can a municipality choose a product at random and apply a special tax to it, FYTW-style, without even trying to make an argument about the public interest? We’re talking about a tax of $4.32 on a case of Diet Coke, which is tantamount to banning the product. But alas IANAL and have not been issued the special constitution decoder ring.

    1. “Commerce Clause!!!!!”

      Oh… this is Philly… The birthplace of Liberty…. so “States Rights!!!!!”

      1. States don’t have enumerated power; they have full police power. Localities have whatever power the constitution and laws of each state say they do.

        1. That explains New Jersey.

        2. The local tax law in PA is that you can basically tax anything that is not taxed by the state or which is prohibited by statute.

    2. Yes. They do this all the time.

      Property taxes are not linked to expenditures – some jurisdictions (like CT) expand the definition of what can be taxed under ‘property taxes’ outside of real property and add in things like cars and boats and other luxury items.

      In CA a sandwich sold hot is taxable, a sandwich sold cold that you can heat up in an on-site microwave yourself is not, but putting hot gravy on it makes it taxable again. Same sandwich in all cases – just who adds the heat to it determines what tax you pay on it.

      Congresses (and by extension state and local legislatures) have pretty much complete discretion when it comes to what and how much you can tax – as the SC affirmed (thank yew mr roberts).

      1. My favorite split hiar tax example is one whether bagels are taxible in New York – it depends on who wields the knife to cut it.

      2. Always get your cinnamon rolls to go at Panera. That way they are groceries (untaxed) instead of restuaruant food (taxed). Same exact cinnamon roll.

  5. By taxing diet soda as well, the city council hopes to impose more of the burden on middle-class and wealthy residents.

    This assertion that lower income (and, presumably less educated) individuals gravitate to foods that will lead to their obesity – whether backed by credible studies or not – completely ignores the fact that everyone in Philadelphia is an asshole.

  6. But remember: Food deserts force residents of cities to go to the suburbs to buy their groceries.

  7. None of these taxes have ever had anything to do with obesity and you shouldn’t pretend that *saying they do* is preferable to a naked money grab.

    They’ve all been naked money grabs and as anti-obesity measures they all suffer from the same structural problems – the money take in is not in proportional to the funding ‘required’ to ‘fight’ obesity and the money taken in is not even used to fight obesity.

    At least these fuckers are honest about flat-out stealing your shit. You can negotiate with an honest thief. You can’t do anything except shoot a dishonest ‘good person’.

  8. They definitely just want the cash, but Sullum is arguing that Diet Coke is much better for you than regular, which I’m not sure is true.

    Anyway, it’s stupid and pretty much guaranteed to not make any sort of dent in the obesity problem.

    1. Donald J. Trump
      I have never seen a thin person drinking Diet Coke.

      11:43 AM – 14 Oct 2012

      1. Trump is right for once.

    2. I’m quite suspicious of the claims against artificial sweeteners. They simply don’t get absorbed, simple as that. It will take a whole lot of evidence to convince me they can be as bad as actually drinking excesses of sugar. It’s much easier to imagine a bad study and/or bad statistical analysis was performed.

      1. They’re less bad than eating a ton of sugar but still bad. You may be thinking of sucralose when you say they don’t get absorbed. That one in particular destroys good gut bacteria:…..redirect=1
        Splenda alters gut microflora and increases intestinal p-glycoprotein and cytochrome p-450 in male rats.

        “At the end of the 12-wk treatment period, the numbers of total anaerobes, bifidobacteria, lactobacilli, Bacteroides, clostridia, and total aerobic bacteria were significantly decreased”

        Splenda may damage gut bacteria, boost weight gain: study

      2. Everyone who drinks diet soda gains weight. The fake sweetener tricks your body into thinking you are getting a treat. When nothing of food value materializes, your body starts the starvation signal, telling you to eat more.

  9. In fact, the tax of one-and-a-half cents per ounce could perversely encourage consumption of more calories, especially since it does not apply to juice products loaded with naturally occurring sugar.

    And perversely encourage spending of more money, since it does not apply to juice products that are more expensive.

  10. The pro-soda tax ads made two things clear: you can get anything passed if “it’s for the children” and
    if “manufacturers are making huge profits off the backs of the consumer.”

    1. “Legal 43rd trimester abortions – for the children”

      1. “I’ve just recieved word that some people feel it’s unacceptable to devitalize ten-year old clumps of cells, so we are moving to a compromise position of legal 55th trimester abortions.”

  11. Kenney said the city should use the tax to pay for “universal preschool.”

    If the city just outright *banned* soft drinks, parents would save enough money to raise their own kids.

    *** ducks ***

    1. And if the city shut down all its schools out of an abundance of caution for everything, education would be cheaper and more innovative and more effective.

  12. Proggy be all like “Fat shaming is bad mmmkay”. But taxing food the obese person loves, totally okay with that!

    Might as well have the uniformed statists go around arresting the obese whenever they see them eating. “Stop resisting! Stop making yourself fat!”

    1. A sugar-loaded latte is fine, because trendy people drink them.

  13. Once again: If we *must* tax something to fight obesity — tax excess body weight.

    1. Once again: If we *must* tax something to fight obesity — tax excess body weight.

      And give them an excuse to politically move the BMI bar for overweight and obese lower again? No thank you.

  14. We’re talking about a tax of $4.32 on a case of Diet Coke, which is tantamount to banning the product.

    More like ensuring that people who want soda will drive just outside city limits to load up on it at the untaxed rate.

    1. In a city where you’re never more than a ten mile ride away from the city limits.

  15. It’s Philly, my state’s constant embarassment. It’s a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Half its politicians (Democrats all) conclude their career in public service with a plea bargain or some time in the Stoney Lonesome.

  16. “By taxing diet soda as well, the city council hopes to impose more of the burden on middle-class and wealthy residents.”

    Every sociological study done over the last several decades that I have read that discuss consumer habits by income level have reported that the rich drink far less soda per capita than those at lower income levels.

  17. Look, if you want to fight obesity in your city, tax people by the pound. A hundred dollars a year for every pound over 200, and all the obese people would move out.

    1. …and even better, we’d get the Las Vegas Eagles, which would be fitting on multiple levels.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.