The long arm of government should not be reaching into people’s refrigerators and pantry cupboards to dictate what they consume -- even for low income people who rely on government help. That doesn’t stop debates that periodically break out suggesting that certain foods should be prohibited from being paid for with food stamps – like steak or sweets or snacks.
Still, the government can and does wield influence; they can control or curb consumption through taxation, often on the basis of health concerns. Hence, the phrase “sin tax.”
Sugary beverages have become the latest sin to get taxed. After contentious battles and debates, the city imposed a 1.5 cent tax on sweetened beverages starting in 2017. Though the proceeds are designed to increase pre-K education, as well as fund Community Schools and the city’s Rebuild program, the opponents fought back with a lawsuit.
A year later, the courts upheld the city’s ability to impose the tax. The beverage and grocery coalition opposing the tax, though, hasn’t relented. Just last week, Councilmember Allan Domb filed a resolution in Council to hold even more hearings on the matter. And the issue is likely to figure in the upcoming mayor’s race. Why?
Opponents insist their criticism of the tax is out of concern for poor people, since the burden of the tax falls on them disproportionately. Recently, some members of the city’s black clergy used the same argument to disavow their support of the tax.
Given the health problems arising from high consumption of sugar, and the already disturbing reports that life expectancy for low income people is far lower than for more privileged groups, you’d think church and civic leaders would be more angry about how their communities are deprived of early education opportunities, not the 18 extra cents for a can of Coke.
It should come as good news that recent research from the National Bureau of Economic Research found the Philadelphia tax reduced adults’ frequency of regular soda consumption by 10.4 times per month, and says there is evidence that overall sugar consumption has been reduced slightly.
If the tax were done solely as a health measure, it would be one thing. But the early childhood education that the tax funds has a far more positive long term impact than a drink.
The clergy have also followed the playbook in faulting the bill for an erosion of jobs and an increase in struggling stores who are losing sales of sodas. But recently, the Food Trust looked at wage tax receipts from the sector in the economy most affected by the tax and found a slight increase, so the doomsday complaints from the beverage industry that this is a job killer just aren’t verifiable.
The soda tax has so far generated $137 million. According to a recent controller’s report, only $31.7 million has been used to fund pre-K, but the city plans to increase enrollment from 2,000 seats to 6,500 in 2020. Philadelphia has 100,000 children under the age of five, so that’s still not enough, but it’s more than a drop in the bucket. It’s time to stop arguing about it.