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Half Empty: Mayor is on to something with soda tax

Nutter convinces a skeptic that the revenue idea is also an important health issue.

I met with Mayor Nutter the other day. The meeting was suggested and arranged by a mutual friend, who thought it might be fruitful for the mayor and me to discuss our differences.

I have written nary a single nice thing about the mayor in this column. On the way in, I saw a pair of blood-red boxing gloves. So I did get a little bit nervous, particularly since I had forgotten my trusty Taser in the glove compartment.

But the mayor was not contentious. He looked at me at times in the same way that wives No. 1, 2, and 3 have looked at me, as if to say, "You really are a little bleep." But he was never antagonistic.

I listened to the mayor carefully. But I also admit that I was preoccupied. Almost as soon as I entered his office, I saw on a small table a 20-ounce plastic bottle of Mountain Dew. I have seen Mountain Dew before of course. As a young teenager in the 1960s, I drank it religiously in the heat of summer after a long bike ride, chugging two 12-ounce cans in a matter of minutes. My thirst wasn't necessarily quenched, but I was locked and loaded with enough sugar-induced stimulant to be the next space capsule.

It may have simply been the glint of the light through the windows, but the greenish contents looked like antifreeze. It wasn't antifreeze of course. Because after reading numerous studies on sweetened soda, antifreeze may well have more nutritional value.

I saw some packets of sugar next to the bottle. Which is when the mayor told me the contents of the Mountain Dew bottle contained the rough equivalent of 19 packs of sugar, or 19 teaspoons.

I was stunned. I could not believe it.

Which is also why I was wrong in a previous column in the way I castigated Nutter's soda-tax idea in his initial budget proposal. I did not believe him when he said that one of his reasons for a two-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary beverages was that it might reduce obesity. I thought he had just found a sneaky way to close the budget gap under the guise of morality.

Did the mayor get to me in this instance? Yes. Call me a sellout or call me honest enough to admit a mistake, but those comments in the column were unfair. I am concerned by the increasing level of government intrusion in our lives. But given the amount of intrusion there already is, a tax on sugary drinks is one of the better intrusions.

Not that it matters right now. The soda tax was a nonstarter with City Council. One counterargument was that the budget gap could be closed by reducing the size of the workforce. I argued that myself, although the most recent report from the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority said the number of general-fund positions projected for fiscal 2010 - 22,518 - is the lowest it has been in nearly a decade. The report also said that overtime costs have been effectively reduced. There is probably more fat to be cut, but the mayor was on to something with his soda tax. Of course, he wanted the tax to raise revenue. But it also highlighted a legitimate and important health issue. The two-cent tax, if anything, was too low. But you have to start somewhere, just as you had to start somewhere with the tobacco industry.

I have now seen a slew of studies on the subject, all of which prove the point that in the wondrous age of the Internet, you can find anything to support anything. There are studies from places such as Harvard and Yale (save the e-mails; the schools are better than wherever you went) providing convincing evidence that sugary drinks are a major catalyst of obesity.

There are also convincing studies cited by the beverage-industry lobby that tax hikes have no effect on reducing obesity. George Mason University concluded in 2009 that a whopping 20 percent tax on soft drinks would reduce an obese individual's body mass index so immeasurably that it wouldn't even show up on a bathroom scale. Studies also cite the anomaly that, while soft-drink sales have dropped 12 percent since 1999, rates of child and adult obesity have gone up. The National Cancer Institute reported that sugar-sweetened beverages account for only 5.5 percent of an average person's caloric intake.

Each side has its points. But I now lean with the mayor, which makes the loss of the tax shortsighted. Sugary soda is one of the likely contributing factors to diabetes and other major health issues, along with most of the rest of the crap we shove down our mouths so we can get to the television set. Should french fries be taxed? Should pizza be taxed? Should Oreos be taxed? Yup, because the taxes will add up, and eventually somebody might try to buy an orange. Compared with European nations, we look disgusting.

My guess is that the soda tax will come around next year: The mayor is a dogged, determined creature. My guess is that Council will turn the tax down again, whether on the basis of ideology, insufficient cuts to the city workforce, fears that jobs in the beverage industry might be lost, or political factors too obvious to elaborate upon.

But just before Council members vote, I think it's only fair that they be forced to eat 19 teaspoons of sugar. If you are going to determine the fate of a soda tax, you might as well get the full flavor of some of the toxic waste out there.

And it should only take a few minutes to peel them from the ceiling.