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Yo, Mayor Kenney: Tax diet soda, too

Mayor Kenney says his proposed new soda tax will fund vital programs — and improve public health. But it's not a serious idea unless diet soda — increasingly understood as a health disaster — is included under the levy.

I have mixed feelings about the major soda tax proposal for Philadelphia now floated by our new mayor, Jim Kenney. It's not a new idea -- Michael Nutter proposed it during his term, and was resoundingly beaten back by a flotilla of lobbyists (and by council members who apparently couldn't stand Nutter). I thought then that the specific Nutter plan was a mess even though I vaguely was OK with the idea of a  "sin tax" on sugary drinks that have been a major cause of America's obesity epidemic.

Now Kenney, who's barely been in office for two months, has re-launched this old idea as his big new idea, but with a couple of twists. The revenue would this time be targeted toward programs that could really move Philadelphia forward, most notably increased pre-kindergarten for low-income students. Now here's the crazy part -- Kenney's planned levy of 3 cents per ounce, levied on distributors, is essentially three times bigger than what's been done anywhere else (Nutter had failed to get two cents). And by anywhere else, I mean the only city in America that's pulled off anything like this: Berkeley, Calif. -- the Shangri-La of radical left ideas. So Kenney either has, hands? -- or he's completely off his rocker. The next few weeks will be critical in deciding that...and maybe the fate of the soda tax as well.

Again, the programs that would be funded by the tax are badly needed. It a shame that Harrisburg can't get its fiscal house in order to help fund essential programs like pre-K; a sad subliminal message from this plan is that Philadelphia just can't wait any longer for state government to do its job. It does irk me that Kenney didn't put this idea out there when he was a candidate just a few short months back, so that rank-and-file voters could have better weighed in on the idea.

But I also have one big problem with the plan that may sound out of left field -- but here goes. The current proposal targets sugary drinks -- soda, sports drinks, even sweetened teas. In other words, the "sin" that's being taxed is sugar; after all, the Harvard School of Public Health calls sugary drinks -- or "liquid candy" -- a leading cause of rising U.S. obesity rates, tracking a sharp increase in both the number of children who drink soda and the size of each portion in today's Big Gulp era.

But this passage in the Inquirer's coverage leaped out at me:

"This will be successful this time," Kenney said in a recent interview in his office, sipping from a Diet Pepsi - which would not be taxed.

This message from the mayor is not so subliminal. If his tax plan is approved, thousands of Philadelphians would follow his example and switch to diet soda -- which would be more affordable than regular soda under the new system and which, it is implied, would make residents thinner and healthier by consuming a drink with zero sugar or  calories.

In fact, that's a terrible, terrible idea. A raft of studies in the last couple of years have concluded that drinking diet soda is not healthy and that -- counter-intuitive though it might seem -- regular consumers have higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and possibly other ailments than do non-soda drinkers.

The solution seems clear: Any Philadelphia soda tax should include a tax on diet soda.

OK, maybe for me this one's a little personal. Ask any friend who's a regular drinker of soda -- diet or regular -- and they'll tell you the stuff is addictive. I sure found that. For most of my adult life, I drank diet soda every opportunity I could. I'm a thirsty soul by nature -- and also the kind of writer who'd probably be capable of producing only a paragraph or two before needing a two-hour nap if I didn't have a nearly intravenous supply of caffeine from either soda or coffee. But over time, I began to notice that these "zero calorie" drinks weren't helping me lose weight. Instead, I was often hungry.

Only recently did I learn the science of why. Two years ago, a major study out of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health found that overweight people who drink diet soda consume more calories from food than those who drink regular soda -- most likely because the artificial sweetener tricks the brain, later triggering food cravings. Meanwhile, an earlier study found drinking at least one diet soda a day was associated with a 67 percent greater risk for type-2 diabetes, compared to non drinkers. One Purdue researcher told Time magazine that consumer are "at higher risk for health outcomes that they are probably drinking diet sodas to try to avoid, like type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, hypertension and stroke."

Last fall, I decided to treat diet soda the way an alcoholic treats the demon rum, and quit cold turkey. That helped me make some other changes in what I eat; I've lost a few pounds and definitely feel better. I'm not the type to get preachy about it -- but my experience does make me feel that the what the Kenney administration is pushing in the name of public health is seriously flawed.

Let's face it, sin taxes -- like other types of sales or value-added taxes -- are regressive and tend to fall harder on low-income folks than the wealthy. Expanding the levy to diet sodas would broaden the base -- hopefully by enough that it could be reduced to just 2 cents an ounce. That's still double what my hippie pals in Berkeley pay, but spreading the inconvenience of the tax would reduce the burden on individual families, and also make it less likely that folks would do their shopping out in the 'burbs just to get a cheap soda fix. That might make the tax more palatable...politically.

But here's the most important part. It would mark Philadelphia as a world leader, by making a powerful statement about public health: That diet soda has a better chance of making you sick than it does of making you thin.