This brings great relief, for the moment, to the lobbyists and pro-soda activists who seem more interested in the bottom line than in the health and waistlines of Philadelphians. Similar tax efforts in 30 states have failed, including one recently in Hawaii that would have added a 17-cent levy to a single-serve bottle of soda. According to Center for Science in the Public Interest, since 2009 PepsiCo Inc., Coca-Cola Co., and the American Beverage Association have spent approximately $70 million to lobby against soda tax efforts nationwide.
For Mayor Nutter, the proposed tax is designed to address two concerns: the considerable contribution of sugar-sweetened beverages to the obesity (also here) and diabetes (also here) epidemics and an effort to raise revenue for the city's struggling public school system. As we wrote in a previous post, obesity is a dire concern in Philadelphia, and the City of Brotherly Love ranks first in obesity and overweight residents among big cities in the United States.
According to the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, as of 2008, 64 percent of adults and 57 percent of children ages 6-11 were either overweight or obese – and in North Philadelphia, nearly 70 percent were. That same document noted that "Philadelphians drink approximately 60 million gallons of sugar sweetened beverages annually."
Creating barriers to the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages seems to work, according to peer-reviewed scientific research. One study, from the Harvard School of Public Health, followed the soda-drinking habits of students in the Boston Public School system following its ban on sales of sugar-sweetened drinks in their public high schools in 2004. According to that study, by 2006, there were significant reductions in the consumption of sodas in the two years after implementation of the ban.
The scientific literature also suggests that a soda tax can, if large enough, significantly reduce the consumption of sugary drinks. Two studies from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University show that the taxes are likely to work. One of the studies showed that a "modest tax on sugar-sweetened beverages could both raise significant revenues and improve public health by reducing obesity." The other study predicts that a tax raising the cost of sugar-sweetened beverages by 20 percent – similar to the 2-cents-per-ounce that Mayor Nutter originally proposed – "could lead to an average annual reduction of 3.8 pounds per year for adults." This study points out that these taxes also can raise "considerable revenue for public health and obesity prevention programs."
Still another study found that a nationwide penny-per-ounce excise tax on sugary beverages would "reduce consumption of these beverages by 15 percent among adults ages 25-64," saving $17 billion in obesity-related medical costs over a 10-year period. That's hefty savings to the bottom line and a great quality of life improvement.
Even a study that found "no measurable effects on soda consumption or obesity among children overall" from sodas taxed at around 4 cents per unit did find that even such a small soda tax reduced consumption among kids most at-risk for obesity, including lower-income children, African American children, and children who watch "a great deal of TV." This particular study, done by scientists at the Rand Corporation, also found that the way soda is currently taxed in some places has too little impact on price to make much difference and that an excise tax, such as the per-ounce tax proposed by Mayor Nutter, would be more effective. "To have a measurable effect on consumption, taxes need to be tied to consumption," the study said, and that "they need to be larger than the existing state variation in sales taxes."
Finally, a study published Monday in Circulation, an American Heart Association journal, found that "men who drank a 12-ounce sugar–sweetened beverage a day had a 20 percent higher risk of heart disease compared to men who didn't drink any sugar-sweetened drinks."
With accumulating evidence of the dangerous health effects of sugar, particularly of sugar-sweetened beverages, it is our collective responsibility to act. Philadelphia City Council twice rejected the mayor's soda tax, and the mayor now says that it is off the radar, at least for this year.
Yet every year that we fail to make a difference is a year that sees Philadelphians' consuming more sugar and more soda, and becoming less healthy. It's not enough to say that this is a problem of personal responsibility. This is a tragedy for our community. And we need to do something about it now.