The public health community far and wide reacted instantly and enthusiastically to Philadelphia City Council's final vote Thursday to tax sweetened beverages. It also largely avoided commenting on one big part of the new tax: the inclusion of artificially sweetened drinks.
Some also noted an irony: The mayor who intentionally did not emphasize public health in campaigning for the tax could end up causing a major impact on his city's well-being. And his example will likely resonate in other American cities, experts predicted.
Lynn Silver, a physician, researcher, and advocate for the California-based Public Health Institute, said she thought singling out beverages - at least those sweetened with sugar - for a tax would quickly win public acceptance around the country. She compared it with smoke-free air regulations, which seemed like an oddity when first proposed.
"This is an idea whose time has come," said Silver, who is studying the impact of a penny-per-ounce sugar-sweetened beverage tax in Berkeley, Calif., the only other jurisdiction to impose a levy so far. Sales of "unhealthy" beverages are down there, while more "healthy" drinks are being sold, she said.
Philadelphia's tax would be 1.5 cents an ounce.
The Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest said in a statement that Thursday's vote "is a huge win for the city's children and parents, who will now benefit from expanded pre-K and parks."
Barry M. Popkin, a researcher at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who has been studying the impact of a sugar-sweetened beverage tax in Mexico (where consumption is down 12 percent), said the latest measure "will improve significantly the health of Philadelphia's low-income population over a five-year period."
Although public health was not emphasized during the debate, Popkin, like others, said Kenney's plan for using much of the revenue for education, recreation, and libraries would be a crucial part of the benefit.
Public health researchers said evidence for the harm caused by liquid sugar is overwhelming.
Lauren Kane, a spokeswoman for the American Beverage Association, argued otherwise in an email: "The obesity rate in America went up steadily (24 percent) from 2000-2014 at the same time calories in the American diet from soda went down 39 percent and soda consumption is at a 30-year low."
"In reality, it will be difficult for this to be passed beyond a handful of outlier cities," he said.
How to view the inclusion of diet drinks, a surprise compromise move by City Council last week, stumped some public health advocates.
"That's a good question. We promote consumption of water as the best thing for you," said Dwayne Wharton, director of external affairs for the Food Trust in Philadelphia, who said he had been receiving "lots of congratulations and inquiries from other communities from around the nation."
Stacey C. Cahn, a psychologist at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, studies behaviors that affect weight and health. She cited emerging evidence, much of it from animal studies, that even artificially sweetened beverages might promote weight gain. She likes the expanded tax.
"Let's keep in mind that diet soda has no nutritional value whatsoever," she said. "You are basically discounting diet soda if you don't tax it."
Gary D. Foster, the former director of Temple University's Center for Obesity Research and Education, preferred to stick to human studies. "For people struggling with their weight, zero-calorie beverages may add some benefit," said Foster, who is now chief scientific officer for Weight Watchers International.
He is not convinced about the impact of a beverage tax of any kind. But that doesn't mean he opposed it.
The whole area of health and taxation has been "characterized more by heat than light," he said. "Rather than claiming victory or defeat, I think this is a fantastic opportunity to assess both the intended consequences - [reduction of] obesity and consumption - as well as the unintended consequences."