LAST WEEK, City Council passed a budget for the city, though Mayor Nutter promises further cuts are coming to maintain an adequate fund balance, since the tax on sugared drinks appears to be shelved.
While soda bottlers and industry lobbyists are happy the tax seems to have gone away, we'd like the suggest that the issue it attempted to address is worth keeping alive.
We had problems with the structure of the proposed city tax; since the city is prohibited from imposing a directed sales tax, it would have had to impose an excise tax on retailers that was broad enough to lead to across-the-board hikes on all beverage products instead of applying it only to sugared drinks. To us, that defeated the potential health benefits of the tax, while imposing new complicated processes on small retailers.
But, we do support the health goals of the idea. After all, obesity is a serious problem in this city and the country, especially among kids, who are big (and getting bigger) consumers of sugared drinks. In fact, according to the American Heart Association, the average American consumes 22.2 teaspoons of sugar a day, with sugar-sweetened beverages the biggest culprit.
The best way to discourage this consumption is an across-the-board sales tax that can be directed to specific products. And that will have to come from the state.
We have to admit that in contemplating the idea of this state passing an enlightened measure like a directed tax on sugared beverages, we're not sure whether to laugh or cry.
After all, "enlightened" and "Harrisburg" don't belong in the same sentence. And the track record of our lawmakers on other common-sense tax ideas has been abysmal. Take gold bullion, helicopters, caskets, smokeless tobacco, and any of the myriad products for which the state has provided a tax exemption. (And don't get us started on the tax on gas extraction from the Marcellus Shale.) Gov. Rendell has championed many of these taxes as a way to meet the state's budget shortfall, and they've gone nowhere. The power of lobbyists and special interests has a strong hold on our lawmakers. But we have to believe that this is a change whose time has come; two states have a tax now, and New York's governor, David Patterson, is pushing for one.
Health advocates should take notice and begin pressuring the state's lawmakers for action. *